As I flew out from Stockholm to Denver last Wednesday it occurred to me how far we had come in HIV Cure research since the International AIDS Society held the first HIV Cure workshop at the AIDS 2010 conference in Vienna.
I've been in Stockholm this week speaking on how a group of cancer drugs called HDAC inhibitors can activate latent HIV at an HIV Cure conference organised by the Karolinska Institutet and all of us who attended have come away feeling energised and encouraged.
All the portents were there - brilliant sunshine in über sophisticated and eco-friendly Stockholm all week and a venue steeped in history and tradition. The conference was held in the Nobel Forum where the recipients of the Nobel Prize in Medicine give their talk each year - it was a privilege to speak there this week and inspiring at the same time.
The Karolinska Institutet has of course, been a major leader in the HIV response from the very early days of the epidemic. Yet it is also fair to say that until very recently the organisation had not considered HIV cure as a research priority. This week's meeting was arranged to generate interest in the field and to move it higher up the organisation's agenda. I think the fact that, Anders Hamsten, President of the Karolinska Institutet, addressed the meeting was certainly a good sign. So too was the program which was notable for its very impressive line up of speakers from the US and Europe including Steve Deeks, David Margolis, Bob Siliciano, and Christine Rouzioux. Nice too to see my Australian colleague Sarah Palmer presenting. I'm proud that Australia is playing a significant part in the search for an HIV Cure.
The meeting was very animated with lots of discussion and at times controversial! Bob Siliciano suggested that HDAC inhibitors might not activate "real" virus or enough virus to eventually lead to a cure! That got people talking as you can imagine.
I was also greatly encouraged by the fact that the media were present at the event -I feel passionately that we scientists need to be constantly informing the public in a measured way what it is we are attempting to do and the challenges we face. While these are undoubtedly exciting times we should never lose sight that the search for an HIV Cure is indeed a long haul and will require a great innovation, sustained level of funding and political commitment.
Denver was a total contrast to Stockholm - grey, drizzly and missing that Swedish style- but I digress.
The annual Interscience Conference on Antimicrobial Agents and Chemotherapy (ICACC) always attracts a broad attendance of infectious diseases specialists and I believe it is a sign of the times that a session devoted to an update on antiretroviral therapy was so prominent in its program. I gave an overview of HIV Cure research - where we've been and we're headed - and though this is certainly not the first time I've delivered such a talk, it is nevertheless emboldening that each time I prepare this particular presentation I can add an extra piece to the HIV Cure puzzle. In Denver my PowerPoint included the results of the Boston Patients, first delivered at the recent International AIDS Society conference in Kuala Lumpur.
An update on one of the CCR5 gene therapy studies done in collaboration with Sangamo was presented here in Denver but this time the participants had a natural partial mutation to CCR5. The study showed that 2 of 6 participants who received CCR5 gene therapy controlled their virus off ART to low levels so we might be looking at two further cases of functional cure! Although it is still early days. Full results of these studies are expected by around the end of 2013.
It is now back to Australia for me to put the finishing touches on the planning of some preparatory meetings in Sydney in October for next year's AIDS 2014 conference in Melbourne. I look forward to seeing colleagues and in particular my International Co-Chair Françoise Barré-Sinoussi. Preparations for the confernece are moving ahead smoothly and the event is already generating a lot of excitement amongst our stakeholders. Stay tuned for some major announcements on World AIDS Day!