According to WHO, there are approximately 36.7 million people living with HIV across the globe. This virus accounts for 1.1 million deaths per year, but despite billions of dollars and decades of research, there is still no cure or vaccine.
Recently, researchers at Rockefeller University and The National Institute of Health conducted a study on a similar virus, SHIV (Simian-Human Immunodeficiency Virus), found in monkeys, and proved that a combination of antibodies given early after infection could help the host control the virus. However, to understand what this breakthrough means for the future of HIV in people we must look at how the virus operates.
HIV is a tricky virus. It goes after the cells in your immune system-macrophages, dendritic cells, and T cells- and hitchhikes on to a protein called CD4. This allows HIV to essentially “hack” your body’s natural immune defenses and manipulate its response during an infection. This process causes immune cells to die off. The virus can also kill unaffected cells in the immune system. To make matters worse, according to the CID, HIV can mutate more times in the first ten days of infection than all known strains of influenza collectively.
Currently, the way we treat HIV in humans is through ART or antiretroviral therapy. This treatment works by stopping HIV from replicating, which in addition to keeping more immune cells alive also helps prevent the spread of the virus. However, this form of treatment can leave HIV lurking in the body, and it’s ready to pounce as soon as treatment becomes disrupted.
Research Study and Findings
Researchers took thirteen monkeys and injected them with SHIV; three days later they were given intravenous solutions of two broadly neutralizing antibodies. The initial treatment was promising, and the viral load lowered to nearly undetectable levels and stayed at that point for 56-177 days. The crux of the experiment is what was observed once the treatment stopped and the monkeys were no longer carrying the antibodies. Initially, the virus rebounded in twelve of the animals, but 5-22 months later six of the monkeys spontaneously regained control of the virus, their levels dropped back down to an undetectable number, and stayed there for an additional 5-13 months. Four other monkeys did not regain total control but displayed shallow levels of the virus and healthy levels of key immune system cells. Overall, 10 of the 13 test subjects benefited from the treatment.
Currently, the experiment is being repeated to resolve some significant issues. The first issue is getting a more human-friendly timeline, as a three days is not enough time for people to begin treatment. Also, HIV and SHIV are not the same virus, but clinical trials on humans of dual antibody therapy are currently underway to see if it gets the same response. If those studies go well, we could see a new option for the treatment of HIV within the next few years.