Remarkable new research on treating HIV: scientists may be on the trail of a method to suppress the virus without having to take pills every single day.
For now, it’s highly preliminary. Thirteen people stopped taking their daily cocktails, and instead got an antibody called 3BNC117. That treatment was able to prevent HIV from reaching dangerous levels for over a month. In fact, some of the patients saw their viral loads stay low for two months.
This treatment is a bit of a shift from the drugs we’re used to. It uses the body’s own immune system to fight infection. One possible advantage of using antibodies instead of antiretrovirals (or in concert with them) is that it may prevent stronger, more destructive strains from “hiding” in the body and then making a surprise appearance.
They’re calling the approach “kick and kill,” which is maybe a little graphic but okay. The idea is that they’ll kick the virus out of the hard-to-treat areas of the body, and while it’s exposed, kill it. By discontinuing the antiretrovirals, the tougher strains may be lured out of hiding. From there, the antibodies can be used to identify those viruses and expose them to destruction by the body’s immune system.
A similar approach has been attempted to treat certain cancers.
The antibody used in this study has an interesting source: rather than being fabricated entirely in a lab, it was harvested from a human donor. Some people are able to naturally resist HIV more strongly than others, and so researchers took samples from a person with an unusually resilient immune system. Because it’s a naturally-occurring substance in human bodies, there’s a better likelihood that it will be safe to use.
This may not be a cure … yet. For now, the next step is to determine whether it could function as an inoculation. Preliminary study showed that it might prevent infection, similar to PrEP. The goal for now is to engineer the substance to last in the body for at least three months.