World AIDS Day is December 1 and offers an important opportunity for us to reflect on how far we’ve come in the battle against HIV and AIDS. In the U.S. alone, more than 1.2 million people are currently living with HIV and almost one in eight is unaware of his or her infection. But in addition to life-changing advances like pre-exposure prophylaxis (or PrEP) in recent years, two new studies might help us eventually conquer the virus once and for all.
The first study, led by Dr. Mark Connors at the NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, has discovered an antibody that neutralizes 98 percent of HIV strains, including 16 of 20 strains that similar antibodies had no effect on. This potent antibody was found in the blood of a patient who had been living with HIV for 21 years and was healthy despite not being on antiretroviral treatment.
The antibody could potentially be used to treat or prevent future HIV transmission by being developed into a vaccine. From there, it could be used as part of a treatment regime for patients or as a preventative measure for those who are at high risk of contracting the infection, similar to how people use PrEP.
For those living with HIV, Dr. Guillaume Filion and his team at Pompeu Fabra University in Barcelona have also made huge strides toward finding a cure. To date, one of the biggest hurdles has been latent (or dormant) HIV. These viruses manage to escape the immune system’s detection and avoid being controlled by antiretroviral drugs by going into hiding once they’ve entered the genetic material of an infected cell. They later re-emerge to re-initiate the infection cycle.
Filion’s study shows that the effectiveness of current HIV reactivation drugs depends on where HIV has integrated itself within the human chromosome. This points researchers toward furthering the development of drugs targeting all locations in the genome. Doing so will allow antiretroviral therapies to reactivate all latent viruses from dormancy—as opposed to only a selection of them—and destroy them once and for all.
While we’re on the topic, let me say it’s crucial that we all support sex research—and more broadly, scientific research—because fact-based evidence is the only way we’re going to continue saving lives and advancing humanity. Support for science is especially necessary in a time when President-elect Donald Trump and his Vice President-elect, Mike Pence, have publically taken an anti-science stance. Last year, when Indiana was in the midst a major HIV outbreak, Governor Pence initially refused to offer a needle exchange program to users injecting prescription opioids because he believed it would promote drug abuse. This was despite the fact public health research showed needle exchanges are an effective way of preventing the spread of HIV and do not encourage intravenous drug use.
We are on our way to overcoming a disease that has taken the lives of 35 million people to date. Consider the enormity of that progress—and what else we’re capable of accomplishing if we manage to continue forging on this path.
Debra W. Soh is a sex writer and sexual neuroscientist, specializing in the fMRI of paraphilias (or unusual sexual interests) at York University in Toronto. She has written for Harper’s, The Wall Street Journal, The Globe and Mail, New York Magazine and many other outlets. Follow her on Twitter: @debra_soh.