Human papillomavirus (also known as HPV or simply genital / anal warts) is the diarrhoea of sexually transmitted infections. It’s the most common of all STIs, yet gets the least press. Nobody wears coloured ribbons in aid of it or makes Oscar-winning movies about its victims. In fact, nobody even likes to talk about it, as I recently discovered at a dinner party when I mentioned that I was being treated for the virus. The conversation spluttered and jerked, then ground to a complete halt. I reckon I would have received a warmer response if I’d admitted that I shagged goats or was converting to Mormonism.
Here’s a look at some of the HIV cure headlines over the past couple months. The ever-growing momentum towards a cure, particularly funding for cure initiatives, is encouraging.
Obama redirects $100 million towards HIV cure research
At a White House gathering commemorating the 25th World AIDS Day on December 1, President Obama announced a $100 million dollar redirection of National Institute of Health (NIH) funds to be used for HIV cure research.
The funds will be redirected from existing projects and resources that have expired, or will be expiring shortly, and will be used over the next three years. A substantial amount of the funds will be granted towards continuing the current objectives of cure researchers worldwide, including research on viral reservoirs, viral latency and viral persistence.
“Beyond HAART: Innovative Approaches to Cure HIV-1”
The National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) and The National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute (NHLBI) have announced a new funding opportunity aimed at facilitating research of novel therapies to eliminate HIV.
Guidelines from the grant announcements state: “Research topics of interest are as follows: cell therapies, including those based on hematopoietic stem cells; novel gene therapy approaches; and the development and delivery of non-traditional antiviral strategies (e.g. miRNAs, siRNAs, gene-editing enzymes). Applications are expected to include basic science/preclinical research as well as translational activities such as test-of-concept studies in animal models or humans. Applications must be designed as collaborative efforts between academia and the private sector.”
Several grants through each institute will fund projects for a total of $11.2 million per year for five years. It is unclear whether these funds are a part of the $100 million redirected cure research dollars.
Wistar Institute receives funding for largest randomized HIV cure trial
Wistar Institute announces a large, multi-institutional research project studying the effects of interferon alpha on HIV latent reservoir size. Wistar was awarded a NIAID based research grant of $6.2 million over six years, following positive results of a prior clinical trial on interferon-alpha. In the initial twenty-person study, half of the participants maintained viral load reductions under 400 copies/ml with interferon-alpha and saw a reduction in the size of latent reservoirs while ARVs were temporarily discontinued.
The funding will expand current research to include a Philadelphia-based, 54 person, twenty-week, randomized, multi-site study of interferon.
“An HIV cure will require going beyond current therapies, and our strategy has shown that it can do that. With this funding, Philadelphia will hold the largest randomized trial anywhere focused on testing an easily accessible strategy to advance an HIV cure,” stated Luis Montaner, Wistar Institute professor and research team leader, in an article on the Wistar Institute&rsrsquo;s Web site.
T-memory stem cells discovered
Research conducted at Massachusetts General Hospital (MGH), The Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT, and Harvard have discovered a new type of cell which may help explain, or partially explain, how HIV persists long term in viral reservoirs, offering a clue to eradicating HIV from the body.
HIV can be nearly cleared from the blood with the use of effective ARVs. It survives by infiltrating cells which then revert into a resting state and are impenetrable by ARVs. Scientists have long questioned how these cells persist when T cells, the main target of HIV, are short-lived and should eventually die off on their own.
A report published in the January 12 on-line edition of the journal Nature’s Medicine, details the discovery of these long-lived T-memory stem cells that survive for decades and give rise to other types of T cells, possibly providing a sustainable source of HIV production.
amfAR launches “Countdown to a Cure for HIV/AIDS”
On February 5, The Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) launched “Countdown to a Cure” at their recent New York gala. The new campaign aims to find a “broadly applicable cure” for HIV by the year 2020. amfAR plans to invest $100 million dollars over the next six years in this effort.
AmfAR should be applauded for its efforts and supported in any way possible. However, the Web site description and cheesy video, to me, are a bit concerning and maybe even misleading. Among my concerns is the use of the phrase “broadly applicable cure,” which is widely stated, as its primary goal. In its campaign FAQ’s they state, “We might start by curing some of the people some of the time. It might be that there won’t be a single cure for all, but at this stage we can’t say for certain.” It’s completely reasonable to assume that a broadly applicable cure may not be possible within six years. However, with this being the case, should the non-profit be touting this as the primary goal of the campaign or was this a term chosen for its PR appeal when the campaign should stand as a respectable effort on its own?
Jeannie Wraight is the editor-in-chief and co-founder of HIV and HCV Haven (www.hivhaven.com) and a blogger and writer for TheBody.com. She is a member of the Board of Directors of Health People, a community-based organization in the South Bronx and an advisor to TRW (Teach me to Read and Write), a community-based organization in Kampala, Uganda. She lives with her husband in the Bronx, New York.