'Breakthrough' for scientists hunting Aids cure

A decade after the development of a therapeutic drug cocktail which transformed Aids from a killer infection to a chronic disease, doctors said yesterday that they may have made the next big breakthrough.

Aids is unique among infectious diseases because even after treatment with a cocktail of powerful drugs, "latent" virus remains hidden in the body's DNA and erupts as soon as treatment stops.

The scientists found that combining a cheap drug called valproic acid with the existing therapeutic cocktail, the level of "latent" HIV fell dramatically. They claim they may be able to eliminate the latent HIV altogether, curing the disease.

David Margolis, who led the research team at the University of North Carolina, said: "Our findings suggest that eradication of established HIV infection might be achieved in a staged approach. This finding, though not definitive, suggests that new approaches will allow the cure of HIV in the future.

"I would like to set scientists on the way to looking for a means to eradicate the virus. That is why I am excited about this. But I don't expect it to happen soon. In the meantime prevention has to be the key message."

The US researchers describe their research as a "proof of concept" study which involved testing four patients who had been on long-term treatment with the standard drug cocktail. They say it opens up new research possibilities but it will be many years before a new treatment results.

The claims, published in The Lancet, had some scientists hailing a breakthrough as others warned against talk of a cure. One dismissed the researchers' claims altogether.

Jean Pierre Routy, of McGill University in Canada, said in a Lancet commentary that the finding "merits further urgent study". Speaking to The Independent, he said: "It is a milestone. It paves the way to a possible cure. Last week we thought it was impossible [to eradicate the virus]. Now for the first time this finding shows it could be workable." Robin Weiss, professor of virology and an expert on HIV at University College London said: "This is a potentially exciting advance, but any talk of "curing" infection is premature if not reckless."

The researchers' optimism was challenged by Abraham Karpas, of the University of Cambridge, the first person to isolate the HIV virus in the UK, who said: "It is absolute nonsense. They don't understand the biology of the virus. We will cure every cancer before we find a cure for HIV. The only way to defeat this disease so far is to prevent infection."

HIV has presented science with one of its greatest challenges because of its ability to infiltrate the DNA in the cell, the genetic code, from which new virus can be generated.

Active virus is destroyed by the drug cocktail known as highly active antiretroviral therapy (Haart), now the standard treatment for HIV. But the latent virus remains hidden and scientists have believed that it was impossible selectively to kill the infected cells or to flush out the virus hidden in them.

The University of North Carolina team intensified the effect of Haart with an extra drug and then gave the patients valproic acid, used to treat epilepsy since the 1960s, twice a day for three months. In three of the patients there was a 75 per cent reduction in latent HIV infection and a smaller reduction in the fourth patient.

Valproic acid is a gene regulator whose mechanism of action is unclear.

Advances come too late for sub-Saharan Africa

In Kwazulu Natal, the South Africanprovince where almost 40 per cent of the adult population are infected with HIV, Nokulunga reaches an emaciated arm from under a blanket to grasp a water bottle by her bed. Ting, her five-year-old daughter, goes to her mother and removes the cap. She is already a carer and soon will join the ranks of Africa's orphans.

Nokulunga, 27, has Aids. Antiretroviral drugs have arrived too late to save her, leaving Ting to an uncertain future. In South Africa half a million children have already been orphaned and the number is expected to treble by 2010.

Scientific advances of the kind reported in today's Lancet have little relevance to sub-Saharan Africa, where more than 25 million people are infected with HIV. The World Health Organisation's target of having three million people on antiretroviral treatment by the end of 2005 is still more than one million short.

The world has put its faith in antiretroviral (ARV) drugs to save Africa from devastation. Cheaper, generic ARV drugs that have appeared on the market recently are helping countries get treatment plans under way.

However, drug treatment, no matter how extensive, will not curb the epidemic. Prevention remains critical. The most effective measures are giving people access to condoms, voluntary HIV testing, treatment for sexually transmitted disease and drugs to prevent mother-to-child transmission.

Public awareness campaigns and prevention programmes have resulted in falling infection rates in some African countries, such as Uganda. And, as more leaders speak out as Nelson Mandela did with his admission that his son died of Aids, stigma and discrimination are lifting.

While HIV has been transformed from a death sentence to a chronic condition manageable with drugs in the West, the same treatments have been denied to people in Africa and elsewhere.

While the West celebrates the latest advance against the virus, the best that Ting's peers can hope for is that by being constantly careful they can avoid lethal infection.

Suggested Topics
Arts and Entertainment
books
News
Dr Alice Roberts in front of a
people
Voices
Nigel Farage arrives for a hustings event at The Oddfellows Hall in Ramsgate on Tuesday
voicesA defection that shows who has the most to fear from the rise of Ukip
Arts and Entertainment
The Doctor and the Dalek meet
tvReview: Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
PROMOTED VIDEO
Sport
Diego Costa
footballEverton 3 Chelsea 6: Diego Costa double has manager purring
Arts and Entertainment
The 'three chords and the truth gal' performing at the Cornbury Music Festival, Oxford, earlier this summer
music... so how did she become country music's hottest new star?
Life and Style
The spy mistress-general: A lecturer in nutritional therapy in her modern life, Heather Rosa favours a Byzantine look topped off with a squid and a schooner
fashionEurope's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln
Voices
Caustic she may be, but Joan Rivers is a feminist hero, whether she likes it or not
voicesShe's an inspiration, whether she likes it or not, says Ellen E Jones
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Star turns: Montacute House
tv
News
ebooksAn evocation of the conflict through the eyes of those who lived through it
News
i100Steve Carell selling chicken, Tina Fey selling saving accounts and Steve Colbert selling, um...
Arts and Entertainment
Unsettling perspective: Iraq gave Turner a subject and a voice (stock photo)
booksBrian Turner's new book goes back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Some of the key words and phrases to remember
booksA user's guide to weasel words
Life and Style
Brave step: A live collection from Alexander McQueen whose internet show crashed because of high demand
fashionAs the collections start, Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Graduate C#.NET Developer (TDD, ASP.NET, SQL)

Negotiable: Harrington Starr: Graduate C#.NET Developer (TDD, ASP.NET, SQL) Su...

Junior SQL DBA (SQL Server 2012, T-SQL, SSIS) London - Finance

£30000 - £33000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Junior SQL DBA...

C# Web Developer (ASP.NET, JavaScript, MVC-4, HTML5) London

£35000 - £45000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: C# Web Develop...

Senior Data Scientist (Data Mining, RSPSS, R, AI, CPLEX, SQL)

£60000 - £70000 per annum + Benefits + Bonus: Harrington Starr: Senior Data Sc...

Day In a Page

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

The other Mugabe who is lining up for the Zimbabwean presidency

Wife of President Robert Mugabe appears to have her sights set on succeeding her husband
The model of a gadget launch: Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed

The model for a gadget launch

Cultivate an atmosphere of mystery and excitement to sell stuff people didn't realise they needed
Alice Roberts: She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

She's done pretty well, for a boffin without a beard

Alice Roberts talks about her new book on evolution - and why her early TV work drew flak from (mostly male) colleagues
Get well soon, Joan Rivers - an inspiration, whether she likes it or not

Get well soon, Joan Rivers

She is awful. But she's also wonderful, not in spite of but because of the fact she's forever saying appalling things, argues Ellen E Jones
Doctor Who Into the Dalek review: A classic sci-fi adventure with all the spectacle of a blockbuster

A fresh take on an old foe

Doctor Who Into the Dalek more than compensated for last week's nonsensical offering
Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

Fashion walks away from the celebrity runway show

As the collections start, fashion editor Alexander Fury finds video and the internet are proving more attractive
Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy

Meet the stars of TV's Wolf Hall...

... and it's not the cast of the Tudor trilogy
Weekend at the Asylum: Europe's biggest steampunk convention heads to Lincoln

Europe's biggest steampunk convention

Jake Wallis Simons discovers how Victorian ray guns and the martial art of biscuit dunking are precisely what the 21st century needs
Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Don't swallow the tripe – a user's guide to weasel words

Lying is dangerous and unnecessary. A new book explains the strategies needed to avoid it. John Rentoul on the art of 'uncommunication'
Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough? Was the beloved thespian the last of the cross-generation stars?

Daddy, who was Richard Attenborough?

The atomisation of culture means that few of those we regard as stars are universally loved any more, says DJ Taylor
She's dark, sarcastic, and bashes life in Nowheresville ... so how did Kacey Musgraves become country music's hottest new star?

Kacey Musgraves: Nashville's hottest new star

The singer has two Grammys for her first album under her belt and her celebrity fans include Willie Nelson, Ryan Adams and Katy Perry
American soldier-poet Brian Turner reveals the enduring turmoil that inspired his memoir

Soldier-poet Brian Turner on his new memoir

James Kidd meets the prize-winning writer, whose new memoir takes him back to the bloody battles he fought in Iraq
Aston Villa vs Hull match preview: Villa were not surprised that Ron Vlaar was a World Cup star

Villa were not surprised that Vlaar was a World Cup star

Andi Weimann reveals just how good his Dutch teammate really is
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef ekes out his holiday in Italy with divine, simple salads

Bill Granger's simple Italian salads

Our chef presents his own version of Italian dishes, taking in the flavours and produce that inspired him while he was in the country
The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

The Last Word: Tumbleweed through deserted stands and suites at Wembley

If supporters begin to close bank accounts, switch broadband suppliers or shun satellite sales, their voices will be heard. It’s time for revolution