By John Salak –
HIV may not grab the headlines it once did. But that doesn’t mean the threat or impact of this deadly virus has receded even if it has slipped from the public’s collective consciousness. More than one million people in the U.S. alone have the virus, including an estimated 13 percent who are unaware they are infected, according to HIV.gov.
Beyond this, the site reports that about 30,000 people annually contract the virus in the U.S. and close to 20,000 adults and adolescents still die every year from the virus. The good news is that increased awareness of protection measures for at-risk groups along with new treatment therapies have slowed the onslaught of infections and deaths in recent years, even allowing those infected to live longer and healthier lives.
Now, researchers from several renowned French institutions have underscored the importance and positive impact that early treatment can have on those infected. The team acknowledged that people living with HIV need to take antiretroviral treatment for life to prevent the virus from multiplying in their bodies. However, the group’s work has shown that some people, known as “post-treatment controllers,” have been able to discontinue their treatment while maintaining an undetectable viral load for several years if they act within weeks of infection.
In effect, their research indicates that starting treatment four weeks after infection promotes long-term control of the HIV virus following the interruption of treatment after two years of antiretroviral therapy.
The findings were based on studies of 30 post-treatment controllers that “provided proof of concept of possible long-term remission for people living with HIV.” The controllers all received early treatment that was maintained for several years. When they subsequently interrupted their antiretroviral treatment, they were capable of controlling viremia for a period lasting more than 20 years in some cases.
The French team noted that their reproducible results show that starting treatment within four weeks of infection strongly promotes viral control after discontinuation of treatment. Conversely, they also discovered that this protective effect is lost if treatment is started just five months later.
“We show the link between early treatment and control of infection after treatment interruption, and our study indicates that there is a window of opportunity to promote remission of HIV infection,” reported study co-author Asier Sáez-Cirión, head of the Institut Pasteur’s Viral Reservoirs and Immune Control Unit.
Essentially, the scientists also demonstrated that early treatment promotes the development of an effective immune response against the virus.
“We observed that early treatment maintained for two years optimizes the development of immune cells. They acquire an effective memory against the virus and can eliminate it naturally when viral rebound occurs after discontinuation of treatment,” Asier Sáez-Cirión added. Delaying treatment for any reason is a bad idea.
“Starting treatment six months after infection, a delay that our study shows results in a loss of effectiveness, is already considered as a very short time frame compared with current clinical practice, with many people with HIV starting treatment years after infection because they are diagnosed too late,” warned co-author of the study Roger Le Grand, Director of Infectious Disease Models for Innovative Therapies.
Asier Sáez-Cirión stressed the need for early treatment extends beyond what his team’s results have shown.
“Early treatment has a twofold effect: individually, as early treatment prevents diversification of the virus in the body and preserves and optimizes immune responses against the virus; and collectively, as it prevents the possibility of the virus spreading to other people,” he noted.