A British man could become the first person in the world to be cured of HIV using a new therapy designed by a team of scientists from five UK universities.
The 44-year-old is one of 50 people currently trialling a treatment which targets the disease even in its dormant state.
Scientists told The Sunday Times that presently the virus is completely undetectable in the man’s blood and if it remains that way it will be the first complete cure.
“This is one of the first serious attempts at a full cure for HIV,” said Mark Samuels, managing director of the National Institute for Health Research Office for Clinical Research Infrastructure.
“We are exploring the real possibility of curing HIV. This is a huge challenge and it’s still early days but the progress has been remarkable.”
The trial is being undertaken by researchers from the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London, University College London and King’s College London.
HIV is so difficult to treat because it targets the immune system, splicing itself into the DNA of T-cells so that they not only ignore the disease, but turn into viral factories which reproduce the virus.
Current treatments, called anti-retroviral therapies (Art), target that process but they cannot spot dormant infected T-cells.
The new therapy works in two stages. Firstly, a vaccine helps the body recognise the HIV-infected cells so it can clear them out. Secondly, a new drug called Vorinostat activates the dormant T-cells so they can be spotted by the immune system.
More than 100,000 people in Britain are living with HIV, around 17 per cent of whom do not know they have the disease, and 37 million are infected worldwide.
The first unidentified patient, a social care worker in London, said: “It would be great if a cure has happened. My last blood test was a couple of weeks ago and there is no detectable virus.
“I took part in the trial to help others as well as myself. It would be a massive achievement if, after all these years, something is found to cure people of this disease. The fact that I was a part of that would be incredible.”
Professor Sarah Fidler, a consultant physician at Imperial College London, added: “This therapy is specifically designed to clear the body of all HIV viruses, including dormant ones.
“It has worked in the laboratory and there is good evidence it will work in humans too, but we must stress we are still a long way from any actual therapy.
“We will continue with medical tests for the next five years and at the moment we are not recommending stopping Art but in the future depending on the test results we may explore this.”
What is HIV?
Human Immunodeficiency Virus – a virus that targets the body’s immune system and weakens its defence systems against infections and disease.
What is the difference between HIV and AIDS?
HIV progresses in stages:
1. Acute Infection: The early period of infection when large amounts of the virus are being produced in the body
2. Clinical Latency: The virus continues to reproduce at very low levels
3. AIDS: The most advanced stage of the HIV infection
How is HIV transmitted?
The most common way of getting HIV in the UK is by anal or vaginal sex without a condom (95% of those diagnosed with HIV in the UK in 2013 acquired HIV as a result of sexual contact). It can also be transmitted via contaminated needles, blood and breast milk.
How many people have it?
Around 35 million people worldwide. More than 100,000 people in the UK were living with the condition in 2013.
Can it be treated?
There is no cure for HIV, but there are treatments to enable most people with the virus to live a long and healthy life