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AIDS research focuses on vaccine to prevent infection

Ryan White

Ryan White

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Updated: July 8, 2011 2:55PM

The recent case of an American man who was cured of HIV by an unusual bone-marrow transplant sparked new interest in whether a cure for AIDS is possible.

The potentially fatal transplant that the so-called “Berlin patient” underwent in 2007 was too dangerous to be a practical strategy for eradicating the virus in other people, AIDS experts say.

But it proved, at least in theory, that a cure is possible.

Still, experts are cautious about predicting when, or if, there might be one.

The virus that causes AIDS is a tricky foe because it can lie dormant for years, then start replicating again as soon as antiretroviral drug therapy is stopped.

To prevent this, people with HIV need to continue to take these drugs for the rest of their lives.

Scientists are looking at ways to “wake up” dormant HIV cells and kill them. They are also studying the idea of starting drug therapy long before a person’s immune system fails, so their natural defenses can keep the virus in check once drugs are discontinued.

The ultimate goal in AIDS research, though, is to find a vaccine that would prevent infection in people exposed to the virus.

Last year, major studies showed that a once-daily pill and a vaginal gel can block HIV transmission, showing that a vaccine could work.

Also, some people have a rare genetic mutation that protects them from HIV infection. Finding ways to duplicate that resistance in people who aren’t born with it is another promising area of research.

Regardless of whether a cure or vaccine for HIV is found, a more pressing issue is getting the treatments already proven to work to the people who need them, said Kevin Robert Frost, chief executive officer of amfAR, the Foundation of AIDS Research.

“We could change the trajectory of this epidemic over the next five to 10 years, just with the tools at our disposal,” Frost said.

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