Weighing pounds against ounces
Advances in prevention and treatment have reduced annual HIV infections by one-third over the past decade, and cut AIDS-related deaths by 30 percent over the past five years. Yet 35 million people still live with the virus. Last year, 2.1 million became infected, and 1.5 million died from AIDS-related causes. Even in the best-case scenario for maximizing existing prevention and treatment, at least a half-million new HIV infections would occur annually in low- and middle-income countries by 2050. The world needs a vaccine and a cure to get ahead of the disease, and great progress is being made in both areas. But, though research in these two distinct fields is beginning to overlap, too many scientists still see themselves as being strictly on one side or the other.
The mechanisms for funding HIV/AIDS research reinforce this separation, because they rarely allow for — much less invite — the kind of innovative cross-field approaches that will be needed to translate recent breakthroughs into testable products. The divide is apparent even among activists and advocates for HIV/AIDS research. It must not be allowed to prevent further progress.
Because HIV/AIDS is already the world’s most studied infectious disease, an HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. Yet we are still far from defeating the virus. Moreover, long-term treatment is not the same as a cure, and no public-health tool (apart from clean drinking water) has ever matched the preventive power of a vaccine. Although there are no precedents that might guide us to a vaccine or cure, we have learned a lot about how HIV works in the last five years. In 2009, for example, researchers found so-called “proof of concept” when a clinical trial showed that a vaccine could prevent HIV infection in humans, and Timothy Ray Brown (known as “ the Berlin patient”) was cured of HIV via a bone-marrow transplant. Researchers are also learning a great deal from the responses of three groups of patients. The first group comprises “post-treatment controllers,” in whom early treatment allowed for long-term control of the infection even after antiretroviral therapy was stopped. The second group consists of “elite controllers,” who can carry HIV for 10 years or more without treatment and without falling ill. The third group, “elite neutralizers,” includes patients who naturally produce antibodies against a wide range of HIV variants.
With the insights gained from following these patients, researchers are increasingly beginning to recognize that the same science may bring us to both a vaccine and a cure. As science advances across disciplines and diseases in ways that were unimaginable even five years ago, the research walls that divide prevention and cure must fall. We must stop weighing pounds against ounces, and collaborate to develop the tools needed to eliminate the HIV/AIDS scourge once and for all.
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