From new targets for HIV vaccines and drugs, to antibodies that might clear the body of the virus, to better tools for preventing infection in women, 2016 was full of incredible developments in fighting HIV.
Here are five of remarkable HIV advancements made this year. These will still need more research and clinical trials before they are ready for the big time. But each one moves us closer to making HIV a thing of the past.
New Target for Potential HIV Vaccine
Since the discovery of HIV in the early 1980s, scientists have been working on a safe and effective vaccine to protect people from the virus. But so far HIV has resisted all of these attempts.
In May a team led by scientists at the National Institutes of Health identified an antibody that can bind to HIV and keep it from fusing with a cell’s membrane. When the antibody blocks this key step, the virus is unable to infect a cell.
While scientists are hopeful about the discovery, they are quick to remember that HIV has a long history of eluding potential vaccines.
Antibody Treatment Clears HIV From Monkeys
Taking daily doses of HIV medication works because it reduces the virus particles in the body to very low numbers. But a few still remain.
In March a team of researchers at the Oregon National Primate Research Center used HIV-fighting antibodies to eliminate the virus from rhesus monkeys within two weeks.
The monkeys had been exposed to a hybrid of HIV and the monkey version, SIV. They were given the antibodies shortly after infection. The antibodies stimulated the monkeys’ immune system enough to attack and get rid of the virus.
Feature of HIV Yields New Drug Target
Many HIV drugs exist, but scientists are still searching for new ones that can prevent the virus from replicating. In August, researchers in the UK identified a new feature of HIV that helps the virus infect cells while avoiding the immune system.
In order to replicate, the virus needs to take in nucleotides from the cell through pores in its protein shell. Researchers designed a molecule that can block those pores, which means the virus can no longer make copies of itself.
Dapivirine Ring May Block HIV Infection in Women
A new tool for preventing HIV infection in women may not be what you’re expecting. It resembles the NuvaRing, a small ring inserted into the vagina that is worn around-the-clock to prevent pregnancy.
Only in this case the ring that is inserted secretes a steady supply of dapivirine. This antiretroviral drug interferes with the replication ability of HIV. If a woman has unprotected sex with someone with HIV, the drug from the ring goes to work on the virus.
In clinical studies in Malawi, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe, women were protected from infection by up to 75 percent. The best protection occurred in women who used the ring most consistently.
People With HIV Living Longer
At one time being HIV positive was a death sentence. But thanks to combination antiretroviral therapy, people with HIV are living longer. However, their life expectancy still lags eight to 13 years behind those without the virus, according to a new study by Kaiser Permanente researchers.
This longer lifespan is good news for people with HIV. But it also means that they will face many of the same health issues as other seniors. Doctors at Georgetown University even announced earlier this year that they had diagnosed an HIV patient with Alzheimer’s disease.