Expert: AIDS cure is more likely than vaccination

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In the case of AIDS, experts believe that a cure is more likely than developing a vaccine against HIV

Experts discuss the chances of curing AIDS. Recently, a baby infected with HI viruses was declared "functionally healed", and there seems to be an increased likelihood that patients will no longer need medication to control the virus for the rest of their lives. According to experts, a cure could even be be possible before developing an AIDS vaccine.

In very few cases, “functional cure” of AIDS is possible. HIV is still an incurable disease. Thanks to antiretroviral therapy, those affected can lead a largely normal life. Life expectancy has also increased significantly thanks to modern treatment. Some experts even assume that curing AIDS will not be unrealistic in the future. "We will get a cure faster than a vaccination in the next few years," the AIDS researcher Hans Jäger, who heads the 15th Munich AIDS and Hepatitis Days, told the news agency "dpa". Roundtables from Friday to Sunday 1,500 experts on the subject.

"The cure is a predictable concept, the therapies have become better," Jäger informed in advance of the specialist conference. He was known to have at least 20 cases in which a so-called functional cure occurred can be detected more without receiving special medication, the most recent example being an HIV-infected baby from the United States, where - even though he received no treatment - the number of viruses did not increase.

However, untreated HIV infection leads to the outbreak of AIDS in most patients. At this stage of the disease, so-called opportunistic infections occur, which are caused by bacteria, fungi, viruses or parasites. Affected people also frequently suffer from malignant tumors such as Kaposi's sarcoma and lymph gland cancer, as well as HIV-related changes in the brain (HIV encephalopathy) and Wasting syndrome. The latter can lead to the death of the person concerned in the further course.

Why were some HIV patients cured? It is still largely unclear why some, very few patients do not develop AIDS even without treatment. The virus can usually be detected in the blood of these HIV-infected people like a “footprint”, but the immune system keeps it under control, so that drug therapy is no longer necessary. Hunters are known to have two babies, two patients from Berlin and 15 others from a French study, who are considered to be functionally healed. “Of course that is far too few. We have not yet understood the mechanisms that specifically brought these people to healing. We only know that it works. We have proof that it is possible, "said the expert.

In the case of an HIV patient from Berlin who suffered from leukemia, a stem cell transplant brought about functional healing. A few years after the treatment, the virus was no longer detectable in his body. The AIDS researcher also reports a process that overrides the virus docking mechanism in helper cells. In this way, the cells previously treated outside the body become immune to the HI virus when they are returned to the patient. While the old cells infected with HIV die, the new ones survive. Jäger believes that this "genetic editing" is also effective for patients who have had the infection for a long time.

Functional cure for AIDS can only be checked at high risk. In other cases, such as in the 15 patients in the French study or in newborns and newly infected people, the viral load in the blood did not increase despite treatment discontinuation. "Now we have to transfer this to larger groups of patients," explains Jäger. "We are in the process of examining whether more of those treated early could not be functionally healed than expected." However, this is not so easy, since stopping the medication is always associated with a high health risk. That is why in many cases it is not known whether a patient is functionally healed. Research is therefore focused on laboratory tests. When a vaccine against HIV infection will be developed is in the stars. According to Jäger, more money should be invested in therapy research.

According to the Robert Koch Institute (RKI), around 78,000 people in Germany had HIV infection at the end of 2012 - including 200 children. More than 3,400 people have been diagnosed with new infections and around 550 patients have died of AIDS. More than 35 million people worldwide are affected by the immunodeficiency. (ag)

Image: Martin Gapa /

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