by Mike Andrew -
SGN Staff Writer
Reports that researchers in Denmark had discovered a way to create 'a mass-distributable and affordable cure to HIV' were quickly denounced as 'wildly irresponsible' by other scientists.
Dr. Ole Søgaard, a senior researcher at Aarhus University Hospital, reported on April 27 that his team was pursuing a 'novel strategy' in finding a cure for HIV infections.
The technique, he said, involves releasing the HIV from 'reservoirs' it forms inside DNA, bringing it to the surface of the cells. Once it comes to the surface, the body's natural immune system, boosted by a 'vaccine,' can kill the virus.
DIFFERS FROM U.S. EFFORT
This is an entirely different approach from the recently terminated U.S. vaccine studies, which sought to stimulate the human immune system to recognize and destroy the outer envelope of the virus. That approach was discontinued April 25, because clinical trials showed it to be ineffective.
Søgaard's approach, on the other hand, has apparently been successful. In vitro studies using human skin cells in a laboratory proved so encouraging that in January, the Danish Research Council awarded the team 12 million kroner (more than $2 million) to pursue their findings in clinical trials with human subjects.
Human tests are now under way, and according to Søgaard, the early signs are 'promising.'
Fifteen patients are currently taking part in the trials, and if any of them are found to have been cured of HIV, the 'cure' will be tested on a wider scale, aided by an immune system booster.
'I am almost certain that we will be successful in releasing the reservoirs of HIV,' Søgaard added.
'The challenge will be getting the patients' immune system to recognize the virus and destroy it. This depends on the strength and sensitivity of individual immune systems.'
Søgaard stressed that a cure is not the same as a preventative vaccine, and that raising awareness of unsafe behavior, including unprotected sex and sharing needles, remains of paramount importance in combating HIV.
The next day, however, the Treatment Action Group (TAG), a U.S.-based HIV activist organization, slammed the initial media reports.
'Sadly, it seems that one of the authors of the Human Vaccines & Immunotherapeutics review, Dr. Ole Søgaard, has rather shot himself in the foot by contributing to a wildly irresponsible article in the U.K. newspaper the Daily Telegraph regarding his group's ongoing research,' TAG said in a statement.
According to TAG, the mechanism by which Søgaard's treatment works was not correctly described. The group took issue with the claim that the experimental treatment 'strips' HIV from latently infected cells, saying that 'at best, [it] prompt[s] the HIV DNA into transcribing proteins,' thus exposing the virus to attack by the body's immune system.
This research is undoubtedly very important,' TAG acknowledged, 'but for the article to suggest that it means that scientists are on the brink of an HIV cure is shockingly erroneous and misleading.'
BRITISH JOINT EFFORT
A similar technique is currently being researched in Britain, but studies have not yet moved on to the clinical trial stage. Five universities - Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London, University College London, and King's College London - have jointly formed the Collaborative HIV Eradication of Reservoirs U.K. Biomedical Research Centre (CHERUB) group, which is dedicated to finding an HIV cure.
The group has applied to the Medical Research Council for funding to conduct clinical trials, which will seek to combine techniques to release the reservoirs of HIV with immunotherapy to destroy the virus.
Unlike Søgaard, the British scientists are focusing on patients who have only recently been infected, as they believe this will improve chances of a cure. The group hopes to receive a funding decision sometime this month.
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