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AIDS science : ‘Cure’ now part of lexicon

Dhaka, 18 May, Abnews : Big names in medicine are set to give an upbeat assessment of the war on AIDS on Tuesday, 30 years after French researchers identified the virus that causes the disease. Scientists will pay tribute to the astonishing success of AIDS drugs and highlight steps being taken towards a cure- a goal once deemed all but out of reach. Entitled Imagine the Future, the three day conference builds on the 30th anniversary on Monday of the isolation of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). The Nobel winning achievement, by a team led by Luc Montagnier of France’s Pasteur Institute, unmasked a killer. Then began the drive to treat the disease and halt its spread.

The discovery of HIV in 1983 and the proof that it was the cause of AIDS in 1984 were the first major scientific breakthroughs that provided a specific target for blood-screening tests and opened the doorway to the development of antiretroviral medications, said Anthony Fauci, director of the US National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). Introduced in 1996, after many years of frantic drug research, antiretrovirals are saving the lives of millions of people infected with HIV and helping to contain the virus’ spread, Fauci said in an email.

By suppressing viral levels, antiretrovirals can prevent HIV being transmitted by pregnant women to their unborn children, and by infected people to their sexual partners. But there have also been setbacks, particularly in the quest for a vaccine. Only last month, US authorities halted the latest clinical trial- launched in 2009- after the prototype formula failed to prevent infection. Finding antibodies that are able to identify the slippery, mutating virus has proven to be almost as hard as the proverbial search for a needle in a haystack.

Vaccine research continues to suffer from setbacks- but pursue a vaccine we must if we are to truly see the end of AIDS, said Adeeba Kamarulzaman, a professor of infectious diseases at the University of Malaya, who will co chair a global conference on AIDS science in Kuala Lumpur in June. Counter intuitively, the main hope nowadays seems to rest on a cure. Three years ago, Francoise Barre-Sinoussi- a 2008 Nobel co-recipient with Montagnier- mapped a strategy for attacking HIV’s reservoir.

This is the cellular bolthole where the virus lurks after being pounded with antiretrovirals. Once the drugs are stopped, the virus re- emerges and spreads once more through the bloodstream. The great challenge will be to fully understand where the virus hides, how it manages to stay hidden so effectively and how to lure it out of its hiding place. We’ve learnt a lot about this in the past few years, said Sharon Lewin, a professor at Monash University in Melbourne, Australia.



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