Pursuing a “Cure” for HIV/AIDS – Two Distinct Approaches

Dr. Carl Dieffenbach, PhD

Dr. Carl Dieffenbach, PhD

Contrary to what you may have heard or read on the Internet, there is currently no cure for HIV/AIDS. While some say that there may never be a cure, I believe there is reason for hope. That’s because some of our best scientists are working on two distinct approaches to finding a cure for HIV/AIDS, both of which are starting to gain traction within the HIV/AIDS research community.

When people think of the word “cure,” some imagine a magic elixir that can completely wipe out a disease or illness from a sick person. Ideally for HIV-infected patients, it could be a drug or therapy that eliminates the entire virus from the body. In the mid-1990s, we learned that when taken properly, highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) can dramatically reduce a person’s viral load (the amount of HIV in the blood) to undetectable levels. Initially, there was hope that this would be curative. However, once patients stopped taking the drugs, the virus growth rebounded and the virus began to spread throughout the body again. We now know why this occurs: HIV has the ability to hide within certain places in the body (called “reservoirs”) and lay dormant for many years. To find a cure, we need to identify and eliminate all these HIV reservoirs. While this is no doubt a very difficult goal to achieve, scientists are working toward uncovering HIV’s favorite hiding places.

Another approach known as a “functional cure” would allow HIV-infected individuals to live without the need for lifelong antiretroviral treatment and remain healthy. Some scientists believe that by aggressively treating early HIV infection using a potent combination of existing and next-generation drugs, we may be able to minimize the number of established HIV reservoirs. By doing this, the body’s immune system would be protected from the initial wave of viral destruction HIV causes, allowing it to keep the virus in check for an extended period of time. The National Institutes of Health (NIH) is currently conducting preliminary studies to determine whether this approach could be effective. At the same time, NIH also is inviting scientists worldwide to get involved in the effort to help clarify basic aspects of the HIV reservoirs and to design other strategies for curing HIV/AIDS.

To help end the HIV/AIDS pandemic, we must pursue a multi-pronged approach with a cure as a major goal. We need to provide HIV-infected people with a means of either mitigating the effects of HIV or ridding themselves of infection. If we’re successful with either of these two cure approaches, we’ll be taking a big step forward in bringing an end to the pandemic.

Visit NIAID's HIV/AIDS Research Program web page for more information.