Cure isn’t a word normally used in the context of AIDS. For most of the 35 years since HIV, the virus responsible for the disease, was first identified, doctors have viewed the notion of a cure as more fantasy than fact.
That’s because HIV is a virus unlike any other. It disables the very immune cells that are supposed to destroy it and also sequesters itself in the body’s cells, staging the ultimate deadly ambush whenever the immune defense’s guard comes down, months or sometimes even years later.
Yet for the first time in the HIV epidemic that currently affects nearly 37 million people worldwide, some experts are starting to aim for a cure–cautiously–as they fashion the next generation of HIV treatments. Scientists now understand how HIV burrows itself inside cells and remains cloaked from the immune system’s watchful gaze–and they have some ideas about how to expose and annihilate it. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is funding HIV cure efforts based on this new knowledge, and advocacy groups like amfAR are also pouring resources into not just treating HIV, but also finding ways to eradicate it completely.
“Absolutely HIV can be cured,” says Rowena Johnston, vice president and director of research for amfAR. “The bazillion-dollar question is how.”
Doctors today have no trouble keeping HIV under control in people who are infected, thanks to antiretroviral (ARV) drugs, which stop the virus from replicating once it finds its way inside healthy cells. If it is not making more copies of itself, HIV cannot spread to infect new cells. That translates into healthier, longer lives for people who are HIV-positive.