Immediate treatment of HIV can slow the progression of the virus, a study undertaken by researchers from the University of Oxford, Imperial College London and the Medical Research Council’s Clinical Trials Unit has shown.
Antiretroviral medication taken during the early stages of infection, over a 48-week period, delays damage to the immune system and can defer the need for long-term treatment.
An estimated 34 million people suffer from HIV worldwide. The virus weakens the immune system, leaving the body vulnerable to infection. In its early stages it often goes unnoticed; left unchecked, it can result in individuals being in danger of life-threatening illnesses.
The study, which took place over five years, took the form of a randomised controlled trial of antiretroviral treatment on 366 adults from Australia, Brazil, Ireland, Italy, South Africa, Spain, Uganda and the UK. It comprised mostly of heterosexual women and gay men and was funded by the Wellcome Trust.
At present, it is unusual for antiretroviral medication to be given to HIV patients in the early stages of infection. The trial randomly allocated the volunteers, who had been diagnosed with HIV no more than six months earlier, medication for 48 weeks, 12 weeks or not at all.
On average, the study found that those receiving no medication required a lifelong course of treatment 157 weeks after infection. Those receiving 12 weeks of antiretroviral medication took an average of 184 weeks before receiving lifelong treatment. Participants on the 48 week course began long-term treatment on average 222 weeks after infection.
Moreover, those receiving medication for 48 weeks had higher CD4 T-cell counts, which can reduce susceptibility to secondary infections such as tuberculosis. Adults on this course recorded lower levels of HIV in the blood, which could help reduce the risk of infection for sexual partners.
Dr Sarah Fidler, leader of the study from Imperial College London said: “These results are very promising and suggest that a year-long course of treatment for people recently infected with HIV may have some benefit on both the immune system as well as helping control the virus.”
Concerns over how cost-effective such treatment would be have been raised by some who do not deem the findings to be tremendously significant. Professor Gita Ramjee, who led the study in South Africa, commented: “We now need to weigh up whether the benefits offered by early intervention are outweighed by the strategic and financial challenges such a change in policy would incur, particularly in resource-poor settings such as Africa, although this may be where the most benefits are seen in terms of TB rates.”
Students at Oxford University have expressed interest in this new study. Fergus Chadwick, a Biologist, said: “It is really fascinating to see how theory that has been outlined in our lectures is being applied in the real world with such promising results.”