Is A Cure For HIV Coming Soon?

Could a cure for AIDS be in the near future? A new vaccine in Bangkok has prevented the infection of the AIDS virus, surprising scientists and researchers.

According to an Associated Press report, a new vaccine cut the risk of contracting HIV by more than 31 percent in the world’s largest AIDS vaccine trial of more than 16,000 volunteers in Thailand, researchers from Bangkok said Thursday (September 24).

While it’s still not full-proof, “it’s the first evidence that we could have a safe and effective preventive vaccine,” Col. Jerome Kim, who helped lead the study for the U.S. Army, told the AP.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, also warned that the vaccine is “not the end of the road,” but said he was surprised and very pleased by the outcome.

“It gives me cautious optimism about the possibility of improving this result” he continued. “This is something that we can do.”

The U.N. agency, UNAIDS, estimates that 7,500 people worldwide are newly infected with HIV on a daily basis. Two million died of the disease in 2007. So, even with a vaccine that could partially protect against it, a lot of lives could be saved.

The Thailand Ministry of Public Health conducted the study, using strains of HIV common in Thailand. Scientists stressed that it’s still unknow whether such a vaccine would work against other strains in other countries.

“This is a scientific breakthrough,” Thai Health Minister Witthaya Kaewparadai said. “For the first time ever there is evidence that HIV vaccine has preventative efficacy.”

Here’s some of the specifics of the vaccine:

The study actually tested a two-vaccine combo in a “prime-boost” approach, where the first one primes the immune system to attack HIV and the second one strengthens the response.

They are ALVAC, from Sanofi Pasteur, the vaccine division of French drugmaker Sanofi-Aventis; and AIDSVAX, originally developed by VaxGen Inc. and now held by Global Solutions for Infectious Diseases, a nonprofit founded by some former VaxGen employees.

ALVAC uses canarypox, a bird virus altered so it can’t cause human disease, to ferry synthetic versions of three HIV genes into the body. AIDSVAX contains a genetically engineered version of a protein on HIV’s surface. The vaccines are not made from whole virus dead or alive and cannot cause HIV.

Neither vaccine in the study prevented HIV infection when tested individually in earlier trials, and dozens of scientists had called the new one futile when it began in 2003.

“I really didn’t have high hopes at all that we would see a positive result,” Fauci confessed.

The results proved the skeptics wrong.

“The combination is stronger than each of the individual members,” said the Army’s Kim, a physician who manages the Army’s HIV vaccine program.

The study tested the combo in HIV-negative Thai men and women ages 18 to 30 at average risk of becoming infected. Half received four “priming” doses of ALVAC and two “boost” doses of AIDSVAX over six months. The others received dummy shots. No one knew who got what until the study ended.

All were given condoms, counseling and treatment for any sexually transmitted infections, and were tested every six months for HIV. Any who became infected were given free treatment with antiviral medicines.

Participants were followed for three years after vaccination ended.

Results: New infections occurred in 51 of the 8,197 given vaccine and in 74 of the 8,198 who received dummy shots. That worked out to a 31 percent lower risk of infection for the vaccine group.

The vaccine had no effect on levels of HIV in the blood of those who did become infected. That had been another goal of the study seeing whether the vaccine could limit damage to the immune system and help keep infected people from developing full-blown AIDS.

That result is “one of the most important and intriguing findings of this trial,” Fauci said. It suggests that the signs scientists have been using to gauge whether a vaccine was actually giving protection may not be valid.

“It is conceivable that we haven’t even identified yet” what really shows immunity, which is both “important and humbling” after decades of vaccine research, Fauci said.

While AIDS is still a problem, it’s definitely a step in the right direction. However, there’s a long a way to go.

What are you thoughts? With the continued spread of HIV, what are you doing to protect yourself?

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