A British man with HIV hopes to become the first in the world to be cured of the disease by using a pioneering new therapy designed to eradicate the virus.
The 44-year-old is the first of 50 people to complete a trial of the ambitious treatment, designed by scientists and doctors from five of Britain’s leading universities.
It is the first therapy created to track down and destroy HIV in every part of the body — including in the dormant cells that evade current treatments. If successful it offers hope of an irreversible cure for HIV and could save the NHS millions of pounds.
Early tests show the virus is undetectable in the man’s blood. But he will have to wait some months before confirmation on whether the treatment has permanently cleared the disease. It is possible that the absence of the virus could be down to the conventional drugs that he has also been taking which can temporarily clear the body of the disease.
Mark Samuels, managing director of the National Institute for Health Research Office for Clinical Research Infrastructure, which set up the medical consortium, said: “This is one of the first serious attempts at a full cure for HIV. We are exploring the real possibility of curing HIV. This is a huge challenge and it’s still early days but the progress has been remarkable.”
Speaking to The Sunday Times, the patient, a social care worker in London, said: “It would be great if a cure has happened. My last blood test was a couple of weeks ago and there is no detectable virus.
“However, that could be the anti-retroviral therapies [Art], so we have to wait to be sure.”
The trial is the result of an unprecedented collaboration between the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London, University College London and King’s College London.
It is being backed by the NHS because it could save millions by removing the need to treat HIV patients with Art, which costs £380,000 per person over their lifetime.
The HIV virus is mostly transmitted by sex. Once in the body it targets T-cells, part of the immune system, splicing itself into their DNA.
If the T-cell is active the HIV hijacks it, turning it into a tiny factory spewing millions more viruses to infect other T-cells. It is this aspect of HIV activity that is targeted and suppressed by Art.
What Art cannot do is pick out the millions of infected T-cells lying dormant around the body — but waiting to spring into life should Art fail. It is the HIV reservoir in these dormant cells that the research group is targeting.
Their “kick and kill” strategy involves first giving patients a vaccine to boost their immune systems’ ability to spot HIV-infected cells.
Then they get Vorinostat, a drug that activates dormant T-cells. The cells infected with HIV start producing viral proteins that protrude from their outer membranes — acting like a flag for killer cells that then destroy them.
If such a therapy were to work it could transform the lives of 37m HIV sufferers around the world — of whom only about half currently receive any treatment.
“This therapy is specifically designed to clear the body of all HIV viruses, including dormant ones,” said Professor Sarah Fidler, a consultant physician at Imperial College London.
“It has worked in the laboratory and there is good evidence it will work in humans too but we must stress we are still a long way from any actual therapy.
“We will continue with medical tests for the next five years and at the moment we are not recommending stopping Art but in the future depending on the test results we may explore this.”
To date, only one person is thought to have been cured of HIV: Timothy Brown who was infected in 1995, only to become ill with myeloid leukaemia 22 years later for which he received a bone marrow transplant.
Knowing of his HIV, his German doctors chose a donor who was immune to HIV — so curing Brown of two deadly diseases in one treatment.
Ian Green, chief executive of the Terrence Higgins Trust, the Aids charity, said: “There is still no cure for HIV and we welcome this ambitious study which looks to eradicate the virus completely from the bodies of people living with HIV, instead of suppressing it.”
For the trial’s first patient, who is gay, and those who are following, the hopes are more immediate. “I took part in the trial to help others as well as myself,” the patient said.
“It would be a massive achievement if, after all these years, something is found to cure people of this disease. The fact that I was a part of that would be incredible.”