The Key HIV Discoveries of 2012

With scientists working on a promising vaccine, and two more men seemingly cured of HIV, the effort to treat and prevent the virus is gaining scientific momentum.

BY Michelle Garcia

December 31 2012 8:34 AM ET

- A skin patch similar to NicoDerm (which helps people quit smoking) was being developed that would slowly administer a constant dose of HIV medication, nearly eliminating the need to remember taking a daily dose. ("A Whole New Kind of Patch," January/February 2012)

- While an estimated 30 HIV vaccines are being tested around the world, one trial in Canada promises to be unique. After decades of research, development, and high hopes, scientists at the University of Western Ontario are ready to test a new type of vaccine known as SAV001 that they hope will prevent HIV infections. What makes this trial different, said lead researcher Chil-Yong Kang, Ph.D., is that this is the first preventive vaccine to use a 'killed whole' HIV-1 virus to activate a person's immune system. This version of the virus, however, would be genetically altered so it would not be able to cause HIV infection. For insurance, the virus is also inactivated by using chemicals and radiation. Kang said this process has not been used before because it was unknown whether a safer version of the virus could be made in large quantities. However, a similar approach has been employed for polio, flu, hepatitis A, and rabies vaccines. ("A Promising Trial," March/April 2012)

- It's long been assumed that most HIV-positive women also carry HPV's particularly dangerous strains, which often cause cervical and oral cancers. But a recent study from the University of Cincinnati found that many of the young HIV-positive female participants did not have those HPV strains and thus could benefit from the HPV vaccine. ("Preventative Measures," May/June 2012)

- Aside from being cute and offering an endless supply of kisses and cuddles, dogs and cats can also be a strong factor in motivating people with HIV to take their meds. A recent study showed that pet-ownership increased adherence to medication regimens in HIV-positive women.
("Puppies Are a Girl's Best Friend," May/June 2012)

- Thirty years into the AIDS epidemic, three men who were HIV-positive are now HIV-free. Following the famous “Berlin patient” reportedly cured of HIV, two more men have been seemingly cleared of the disease, researchers announced at the 19th International AIDS Conference in Washington, D.C. this July. The men were HIV-positive and treated for cancer with bone marrow transplants. More than two years later, HIV cannot be detected in their bodies. Their results echo the case of “the Berlin patient,” the informal name assigned to Timothy Ray Brown, a German man allegedly cured of HIV from a bone marrow transplant. The two stem cell transplants that treated Brown’s acute leukemia came from a donor with a genetic mutation that makes cells resistant to HIV infection. The transplant replaced his infected cells with the HIV-resistant cells, clearing his body of the virus.
("Cured or Cleared," September/October 2012)

- An at-home rapid HIV test was released on the market this year. The FDA agreed that the OraQuick In-Home HIV Test would encourage more people to learn their status and, if they’re positive, take preventive measures to ensure they don’t spread HIV. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that 20% of Americans with HIV, or about 240,000 people, are unaware they are positive. Because these people don’t know their status, they cause between 54% and 70% of new HIV infections each year.
("Quick Swab, Quick Results," September/October 2012)

- Truvada, which many HIVers use to treat the virus, became the first pill approved for preventing  the spread of HIV through sexual contact. The FDA is changing the warning literature boxed with Truvada to emphasize that those using it for prevention need to be confirmed as HIV-negative and tested for the virus every three months. Some doctors have already been prescribing Truvada off-label for prevention to the HIV-negative partner of an HIV-positive person, but they did so at their own discretion. FDA approval now allows its maker, Gilead Sciences, to explicitly market the drug for the purpose of prevention. Truvada, a combination of the drugs Emtriva (emtricitabine) and Viread (tenofovir), is one of the class of drugs called nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors, so called for the way in which it suppresses replication of HIV in infected people. ("A Pill That Prevents HIV?", September/October 2012)

- Newborn children of HIV-positive mothers are less likely to contract the virus if the infants are given a combination of AZT and one or two other drugs within 48 hours of birth. A UCLA-led study found that giving an infant either AZT with nevirapine or AZT with nelfinavir and lamivudine reduced the risk of HIV transmission by about half compared with giving AZT alone. ("News You Can Use," September/October 2012)

- At this year's International AIDS Conference, one group of researchers unveiled new treatment guidelines calling for physicians to put HIV-positive individuals on medications as soon as they are diagnosed, instead of waiting until their immune system shows signs of deterioration (as measured by T-cell count), which has been a common approach.  The team, led by Atlanta physician Melanie Thompson, recommends a regimen of Truvada or Epizom plus either Sustiva, Reyataz, Prezista, or Isentress. These drugs can not only decrease the amount of HIV in the body, they can make it more difficult for an HIV-positive person to transmit the virus (although safer-sex practices are still called for). “The scientific community really recognizes how valuable they could be to prevent transmission,” Rowena Johnston, director of research for amfAR, told HealthDay. ("Hope and Change," November/December 2012)

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