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In-Depth: HIV Institute at UC San Diego paves way towards cure

Research into treatments and cures continues
Posted at 5:58 AM, Feb 21, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-21 10:30:23-05

LA JOLLA, Calif. (KGTV) - Recent reports that a third person has been "cured" of HIV/AIDS is cause for celebration at the HIV Institute at UC San Diego, even though researchers say they had little to do with this case.

The HIV Institute is part of the "IMPAACT Study," which tracks cancer patients who receive cord blood stem cell transplants for treatment. One of those patients was recently declared free of HIV. But the UC San Diego-based research institute was not involved with that patient.

"It's always exciting and encouraging to show that cure can happen," says Dr. Douglas Richman, the Director of the HIV Institute and the San Diego Center for AIDS Research. "It tells you that it's feasible to cure someone."

But, Dr. Richman cautions that this specific cure is dangerous and expensive. He says it won't work for everyone.

"This particular approach is not a safe or realistic approach for the 38 million people on the globe who are currently infected," says Dr. Richman.

Instead, his team at the HIV Institute is focused on finding treatments and working towards a cure that can help more people.

Since its inception in 1996, the HIV Institute has been at the forefront of many key HIV/AIDS treatment developments.

Dr. Richman led the clinical trials of AZT, widely recognized as the first AIDS drug. The HIV Institute lab also discovered that HIV was "drug-resistant," meaning a single drug was ineffective. That led to the concept of "combination therapy," which the HIV Institute helped pioneer. The Institute also discovered that HIV infects cells' genes, leaving behind a "Latent Reservoir" of the virus. Dr. Richman says attacking that reservoir has become a pivotal battle in the fight for a cure.

"The important approach to a cure is to characterize the reservoir and figure out ways to help eliminate it," he says. "That is a very challenging objective."

All these developments, along with other research from around the world, have paid off.

The latest data from the World Health Organization shows that HIV-related deaths have dropped every year since 2004, from a peak of 1.9 million to just 680,000 in 2020.

New infections of the disease are also down from three million per year in 1995 to 1.5 million in 2020.

"The good news is that treatment has taken a life-threatening disease to a disease that can be managed if one takes one's medications reliably," says Dr. Richman.

Looking ahead, the HIV Institute started the "Last Gift Program," where people who die with HIV donate their bodies to science. Dr. Richman says that he will let his team study tissue samples where the infection lives.

"Most studies involve taking blood," he explains. "But 98 to 99% of the latent reservoir and the infection is in the tissues...

"This program is providing a lot of insight on what's going on in the various tissues: the gut, the brain, the lymph nodes. So that's an important area of investigation."

Meanwhile, the Institute partnered with Scripps Research on an mRNA-based vaccine to prevent the disease. As crucial as a vaccine would be, Dr. Richman says better access to treatment worldwide can help lower the transmission rate faster than a vaccine can be developed.

Progress has been slow through the last two years, as the COVID-19 Pandemic and all of its restrictions led to research delays.

But the Pandemic also showed ways that science can speed up through a greater emphasis on collaboration and funding.

Dr. Richman hopes the world will give HIV the same attention it gave COVID-19 once the Pandemic ends.

"This problem of HIV is so large globally and so important," he says. "We're hoping to regain a balance (with the Pandemic) and get back to addressing this important problem."

For more information about the HIV Institute, go to their website, hiv.ucsd.edu.