Treating patients rapidly after HIV infection may be enough to “functionally cure” about a tenth of those diagnosed early, scientists have found.
Researchers in France analysed 14 patients who were treated between 35 days and ten weeks of becoming infected with HIV and then stopped therapy.
In the seven years since stopping drug treatment, none of the 14 have shown signs of the virus resurging.
The research, published in the journal PLOS Pathogens, follows news earlier this month about a baby girl in the United States being effectively cured of HIV after receiving very early treatment.
Such early treatment for HIV is rare, as most people infected with the virus do not find out until it has fully infiltrated the body. The infections of patients in the study were caught at an early stage as they had been treated in hospital for other conditions, and HIV was detected.
They were treated with a course of antiretroviral drugs for an average of three years, before stopping treatment.
Antiretroviral drugs cannot destroy the virus completely, but can keep it in check with additional side effects.
Normally, the virus returns after the patient discontinues the course of drugs, but the 14 patients have been able to control their levels of HIV for the past seven years without beginning another course of antiretrovirals.
Further tests were conducted to confirm the 14 adults were not “super-controllers”, the term for the 1 per cent of the population which is naturally resistant to HIV, since all 14 lacked the necessary protective genes.
This effective remission of the disease does not represent a total eradication of HIV, but the study carries significant importance for understanding its treatment and how to control it, prolonging patients’ lives.
The study said that the patients exhibiting long term remission of the virus may hold important clues about a possible functional cure for HIV.
Christine Rouzioux, a professor at Necker Hospital and University Paris Descartes and a member of the team which first identified HIV 30 years ago, said the new results showed the number of infected cells circulating in the blood of these patients, known as “post-treatment controllers”, kept falling even without treatment for many years.
“Early treatment in these patients may have limited the establishment of viral reservoirs, the extent of viral mutations, and preserved immune responses.
“A combination of those may contribute to control infection in post-treatment controllers,” she said.
“The shrinking of viral reservoirs … closely matches the definition of ‘functional’ cure.”
Worldwide, the number of people newly infected with HIV, which can be transmitted via blood and by semen during sex, is falling.
At 2.5 million, the number of new infections in 2011 was 20 per cent lower than in 2001, according to the United National Aids programme.
Deaths from Aids fell to 1.7 million in 2011, down from a peak of 2.3 million reached in 2005.