In a stunning experiment reported first in the journal Science, scientists from Emory University in Atlanta found that a drug used to treat gut inflammation (Entyvio) produced long-lasting viral load control and T-cell restoration in infected rhesus macaque monkeys, who were taken off antiretroviral therapy.
The monkeys improved immune system lasted for 30 weeks, and according to the report, their viral load control continued to improve throughout this period. This kind of sustained virological remission is essentially what researchers call a "functional cure," where HIV remains in the system but doesn't do damage even after antiretroviral treatment is stopped.
In this study, scientists saw an increase in a Natural Killer (NK) cell, which seemed to be enabled by the drug Entyvio. The cell helps to deal with HIV infection a lot better, while responding to the HIV protein in ways antiretroviral therapy does.
While it’s still unclear how the drug works, a small human trial of 20 people is already underway at the National Institute of Allergies and Infections Diseases (NIAID) at Bethesda, Maryland.
But the human trial might present some challenges: first, the monkeys treated were newly infected while the human study is on chronically infected systems; second, while the drug suppressed the virus in monkeys, it did not clear it altogether. Scientists are still unclear how long the effect would last after sixteen weeks, which is how long it was studied in the monkeys.
Only future testing will be able to enlighten us on the future of medicine. Science reached out to several scientists about the discovery, many were skeptical.
NIAID chief Anthony Fauci said the results “knocked us out, they were so stunning,” while Sharon Lewis of Melbourne University warned that “it may just be a quirk of the monkey model.”