Antiviral drugs enable people to live for years with HIV, and now researchers around the world are looking to surpass that achievement with a cure.
Nearly 300 of those researchers gathered Monday at the Marriott Waterfront in Baltimore to share the latest research findings, with the aim of sparking new ideas. They were in town for the International Meeting of the Institute of Human Virology, which for the last 17 years has brought together the best minds in AIDS research to help advance ways to treat it.
A part of the University of Maryland School of Medicine, the institute is headed by Dr. Robert Gallo, co-discoverer of the HIV virus that causes AIDS. Much of the research shared at the conference is so new it has yet to be published in scientific journals and results could not be shared publicly.
"This brings together people in the field to talk about what a cure could look like," Gallo said.
The latest studies explore two paths for eliminating the HIV virus. One is to lower the viral load in the body so much that it doesn't come back. The other is to create a vaccine that would create immunity against the virus. Now, if people stop taking the medicine, the disease eventually will reappear.
"We have had so much success in HIV," said Carl W. Dieffenbach, director of the division of AIDS at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, a component of the National Institutes of Health. "We have gone from it being a death sentence in a few months to pretty much allowing people to have a normal life expectancy. But there is more work and research that needs to be done."
What has stumped scientists is what is known as the HIV reservoir, or hideouts where HIV lies latent. Much of the HIV research is aimed at finding out what causes this HIV to remain suppressed and how to control and eliminate the reservoir. Researchers believe finding the answers could go a long way in finding a cure.
"Although we can knock the virus down, once treatment is halted it really comes right back," said Dr. Keith Jerome, head of the virology division at the University of Washington, who was on one of the conference presenters.
The researchers discussed topics including preventing the spread of HIV from mothers to babies during pregnancy to how replication of cells infected with HIV contributes to the spread of the disease.
Dr. John Frater of the University of Oxford in England looked at patients who have been in remission to try to tease out common characteristics. His team of researchers found earlier treatment, the length of treatment, and how much HIV virus DNA remains in a patient's body were all factors in how long they went into remission.
He wants to use the findings to better understand how HIV affects the body.
"If we can understand the mechanism and what is going on in the cells ... hopefully it can open up new ways of finding a cure or a new medication," he said.
The conference lasts through Wednesday where an AIDS vaccines will be discussed and the institute will give its lifetime achievement awards to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases and Nobel laureate Dr. Harald zur Hausen.
The institute also announced that its co-founder Dr. William A. Blattner is retiring Jan. 31. He collaborated with Gallo on the discovery of HIV as the cause of AIDS and the development of the HIV test. A program Blattner ran in Nigeria has screened more than 1 million people for HIV and placed 183,000 people on anti-retroviral therapy.