Oxford researchers curing HIV

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Researchers from Oxford University will co-operate with scientists from four other UK universities as part of a pioneering scheme to assess a potential cure for HIV infection.

Dr John Frater, of the University’s Nuffield Department of Clinical Medicine, will jointly lead the research with Dr Sarah Fidler, of Imperial College London.

The project is being funded by a £1.7 million grant from the Medical Research Council as part of the Biomedical Catalyst funding stream, and will involve teams at Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial, UCL and KCL.

HIV is a global epidemic, affecting thirty-four million people worldwide. A common treatment, antiretroviral therapy (ART), is highly successful in inhibiting the virus from spreading further, but does not cure the disease, and so has to be taken for life.

The new therapy being tested combines standard ART medication with a drug that reactivates dormant HIV, as well as a vaccine that stimulates the immune system to wipe out infected cells.

Previous attempts to cure HIV have been frustrated by the virus’ ability to hide themselves by lying dormant inside blood cells.

The trial will follow fifty patients in the early stages of HIV infection. The scientists hope within months, the ‘HIV reservoir’ (stores of ‘hidden’ HIV in the patients) will be reduced. Results are expected in 2017.

Drugs called HDAC inhibitors have been shown to reactivate dormant HIV in the laboratory.

Dr Frater commented: “We can only truly know if someone is cured of HIV if we stop giving them antiretroviral therapy[…] not going to do that, but we will test if we can reduce the number of HIV-infected cells in these patients. If we can, it will prove in principle that this strategy could work as a cure, even though it will need many more years of further development.”

Naomi Cockrill, a second year medical student at Merton, said: “It is encouraging that new techniques are being trialled which address the problem of the ‘HIV reservoir’ and make eradication a possibility. However, little more can be said before the results are collected in 2017. Even if it proves to be effective, it could be a long wait before the potential benefits of the therapy become available to HIV positive patients, outside of clinical trials.”

Ben Reinders, also a second year medic, at Corpus, was thrilled by the news, commenting: “I’m very proud to be studying at a university with such an impressive history of medical research, and am glad to see it continuing with this discovery.”

The trial will begin recruiting patients next year. For more information go to www.cherub.uk.net

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