Scientists have identified a group of people who, even though infected, show no viral level of HIV. Now they hope to harness the virus fighting ability and transform it into a better therapy and perhaps even a cure.
Massive numbers of people in the Democratic Republic of Congo are infected with HIV, yet a select group doesn’t show it.
Dr Mary Rodgers is a principle scientist at Abbott.
“We found that they were actually a large number of patients who didn’t even have any virus to sequence,” she said.
Abbott scientists have been tracking the virus that causes AIDS since 1985 in 45 different countries. In all, 76 million have been infected, 38 million are currently living with HIV, 26 million are in Africa.
And that’s where the super fighters with no detectable virus live now.
“We found there were about 4 percent of all the people with HIV in DRC who are able to naturally control HIV without taking any medication,” Rodgers said.
What’s in their DNA that boosts their immunity? That’s the next focus for research.
“We have so many people that we can now follow and understand what makes them unique and see clear trends that we could more easily translate into new treatments and vaccines,” she said. “This could be groundbreaking if these people are able to potentially teach us how to suppress HIV.”
Along with the amazing finding there was a disturbing one identified last year – a new variant of HIV. Like most viruses, it mutated. And that means the search for a cure is that much more pressing.
“There’s a sense of urgency that we need to find new treatments,” Rodgers said. “And we may potentially learn about some through this group of amazing people.”
The quest is similar to the desperate search for answers in the current pandemic fighting SARS-CoV-2.
“We’ve taken what we’ve learned about how we need to be able to detect a lot of different strains of HIV with just one diagnostic test – and that taught us how to make a test for SARS-CoV-2 that connect all the many variants we are now seeing,” Rodgers said. Viruses never stop and neither do we. We need to remain vigilant and make sure that we know which strains are circulating and use those samples and sequences to make sure that our diagnostic tests continue to work.”
Working together has been the key. Battling a virus that first hit the stage in the 1980’s to the one that upended our lives in 2020, collaboration has yielded answers and hope.
“The ability to respond as quickly as the scientific community has by creating diagnostic tests really quickly and generating vaccines – and potentially some therapies as well – with antibodies now being in use – it’s really nice to see how quickly the scientific community has responded,” Rodgers said. “And so I’m very optimistic that everything we are doing is going to help us make significant decreases in the number of Covid cases.”
The global study of viruses has ramped up. And it’s back to the lab, studying what makes some seemingly immune to an HIV infection while others are asymptomatic with COVID-19. It’s the science that will make the real difference for survival.