Words by Serena Cavanagh and Kath Charters from Sahir House
A possible “functional cure” for HIV has recently been granted FDA approval for further human testing. The method uses genetic modification to cause a specific mutation in the white blood cells of HIV patients, which mirrors those found in the naturally immune. It has so far shown to be both receptive and long-lasting.
The novel therapy involves taking stem cells from HIV-infected patients and using a gene editing tool to cause them to form into white blood cells with a specific mutation. The mutation affects a protein known as CCR5, and interferes with the virus’s ability to latch onto blood cells.
The mutation occurs naturally in a small percentage of the world’s population and gives these individuals a life-long resistance to HIV infections. Although the virus may remain in their body, without being able to enter the T cells, it cannot replicate and therefore will stay at low numbers, uncompromising the immune system.
A functional cure doesn’t eradicate the virus, a but aims to suppress viral activity to levels where it cannot cause the body any harm and do so without the ongoing use of drugs.
This differs from current highly effective medication that takes the form of a prescription of one or two tablets taken daily, prescribed by a Consultant specialist, known as anti-retroviral treatment – ART.
ART can reduce the level of HIV in the body to such a low amount that they are unable to pass it on, known as having an undetectable viral load. Having an undetectable viral load can keep you healthy, but it’s not a cure for HIV. To maintain an undetectable viral load a person must keep adhering to their antiretroviral treatment.
Recently, some people living with HIV may have been offered injectable treatments which involve a bi-monthly injection of ART, but this involves certain protocols and the patient will need to meet certain criteria to be offered this treatment option by their HIV consultant.
When exploring treatment options, people living with HIV need to be open and honest about their medical history, sexual orientation and lifestyle choices and behaviours (e.g. choosing to use recreational drugs, or having multiple partners) to get the best from their treatment without anything affecting the efficacy of the ART they are given. All ART treatment is free regardless of whether the person living with HIV is a UK resident, a migrant, a refugee or an asylum seeker.
If everyone who is HIV positive knew their status, was on effective treatment and was therefore unable to pass it on, we might reach the target of zero HIV transmissions by 2030!
Knowledge is power, get educated, know the facts and have a conversation about U=U this World AIDS Day.