In Depth

HIV researchers edge closer to a cure

British man with HIV hoping to be cured of the disease after unprecedented collaboration between universities

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British scientists could be on the brink of finding a cure for HIV with a pioneering new therapy designed to eradicate the virus.

An unprecedented collaboration between the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London, University College London and King's College London is being backed by the NHS, which could save millions of pounds in reduced treatment costs.

How does it work?

The HIV virus infects T-cells, white blood cells that play an important role in the immune system. If the T-cell is active, the HIV virus multiplies to infect other T-cells – something that can be suppressed by anti-retroviral therapies (Art). However, Art is unable to target T-cells when they are not active, so only acts as a control for HIV rather than a cure.

The new therapy will target the HIV reservoir in these dormant cells, by first boosting the patient's immune system, allowing it to spot HIV-infected T-cells, and then using a drug to activate the dormant T-cells so they can be found and destroyed.

"This is the first therapy to track down and destroy the HIV in every part of the body, including in the dormant cells that evade current treatments", says the Sunday Times.

It's a "huge challenge", says Mark Samuels, the managing director of the National Institute for Health Research, and it is "still early days", but the progress has been "remarkable", he adds.

Will it work?

Laboratory tests have proved successful and scientists are now trying the therapy on their first patient, a 44-year-old British man.

Early tests show the virus is undetectable in the man's blood but he will have to wait some months before confirmation of whether the treatment has permanently cleared the disease.

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