In Danish Laboratories, Hope Looms Large for a Permanent HIV Cure

By Valorie Sands  MAY 08, 2013 1:42 PM

Following successful in vitro studies, Danish researchers are on the fast track to human clinical trials.

 


So far HIV has eluded a permanent cure, yet many newly diagnosed patients can now control the virus with just one pill per day. Most lead relatively normal lives. In developing countries where millions are without access to cutting-edge drugs, life with HIV means a struggle for survival.

In past years, whenever hope was raised for a permanent cure, trials failed in the end. Major HIV players, like Gilead Sciences, Inc. (NASDAQ:GILD), Bristol Myers Squib (NYSE:BMY), and Merck & Co, Inc. (NYSE:MRK), have been largely absent from the scene. Merck is moving to improve its antiviral offerings, but faces generic competition and problems due to patent loss. Immunomedics, Inc. (NASDAQ:IMMU) is working with the Karolinska Institutet to develop a new class of drugs designed to vanquish the virus, not just control it. But overall, a permanent cure would likely squash the healthy profits these stocks derive from drugs that must be taken daily and for life where monthly expenses reach into the thousands. Most current research is undertaken in medical laboratories and universities.

Now once again, hope is surfacing: Across the globe, from Duke University to the United Kingdom, and most importantly in Denmark, HIV researchers are optimistic about a cure.  

In Danish laboratories, positive early in vitro findings suggest that once the HIV virus is isolated and brought to the surface of the cells from within DNA  "reservoirs," it can be destroyed by the body's own immune system with the help of a vaccine administered to bolster the attack.

“I am almost certain that we will be successful in activating HIV from the reservoirs," said Dr. Ole Sogaard, a senior researcher at the Aarhus University Hospital in Denmark  "The challenge will be in getting the immune system to recognize the virus and destroy it. This depends on the strength and sensitivity of individual immune systems,”said Sogaard.  

The new technique has proved so successful in in vitro laboratory tests that in January, researchers in Denmark were funded with £1.5 million (equivalent to $1,976,550) to proceed to a human clinical trial. Doctors there say that the novel approach “could lead to a cure within months” and brings them "to the brink" of “finding a mass distributable and affordable cure to HIV.” Currently fifteen patients are participating in the Danish trials. Once a patient is cured of the virus, the trial will be expanded.   

Despite all the optimism, some researchers are wary about the outlook for an imminent cure. “We’re not months away from a cure,” Kevin Robert Frost, CEO of The Foundation for AIDS Research (AmfAR), recently told The Huffington Post. “There is still a lot of work that has to be done.” He said, “Essentially, the biggest obstacle to a cure for people with HIV is that the virus lives in viral reservoirs, which are not susceptible to the current drugs we have. What a lot of scientists have been trying to do lately is figure out if there are drugs that can stimulate the viral reservoirs so that we may begin to target them.”

British Scientists Test the Same Method, While Duke Researchers Take Another Approach.  

Concurrent to the Danish research, the same novel approach is being studied in the United Kingdom; however, tests there have not yet moved to clinical trial. Five universities -- including Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London, University College London, and King’s College London -- have joined to form the Collaborative HIV Eradication of Reservoirs UK Biomedical Research Centre Group (CHERUB), which is dedicated to finding an HIV cure.

Researchers at  Duke University in North Carolina also seem to be on the brink of a breakthrough. Up until now, the HIV virus has proven to be a difficult vaccine target. However, Duke scientists led by Barton Haynes, M.D., Director of the Human Vaccine Institute, recently seem closer to discovering a way to improve victims' own immune response, which could lead to a vaccine. Still, the process is theoretical, and some scientists remain only cautiously optimistic.

So far, Duke's advanced discovery stems from finding a person in Africa whose HIV infection was detected early enough so that the virus had not yet mutated to escape the body's immune assault. That same African patient is also among the fortunate few (20%) whose immune system is able to overcome the virus. This has allowed Duke researchers to track and map the virus through every step of the process. The team believesthat  they have come up with a way to drive the immune system to preferentially churn out the same broadly neutralizing antibodies that mimic the way this patient's immune response successfully overcomes the virus.

“The next step is to use that information to make sequential viral envelopes and test them as experimental vaccines,” said Haynes. “This is a process of discovery and we’ve come a long way with regard to understanding what the problem has been.”

Dr. Louis J. Picker, of Oregon Health & Science University, described the study as “a road map to vaccine development, yes — but it’s like one of those maps of the world from the year 1400. We still don’t know how to turn this into a vaccine,” as reported by the New York Times.
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