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The Top 5 HIV News Stories of 2016

We’ve put together the top five biggest news stories on HIV Contagion covered this year. Did you read them all?

A total 36.7 million individuals around the globe are living with HIV/AIDS and the disease has caused over 35 million deaths. However, antiretroviral therapy (ART) has allowed for infected individuals—who will have to live with the virus for the rest of their lives—to live much longer lives. With this treatment, a diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. Although there is still much left to do when it comes to finally putting an end to this ongoing epidemic, there are advancements being made all the time by researchers from all around the world who have come together in a collective fight against the virus.

The following were the top 5 HIV-related news stories/interviews of the year:

How Close Are We to Finding a Cure for HIV?

In an interview with Contagion, David Rosenthal, DO, PhD, medical director for the Center for Young Adult, Adolescent, and Pediatric HIV Care at Northwell Health, discussed just how close he feels researchers are to finding a cure for HIV. In this clip, Dr. Rosenthal discusses how the National Institute of Health (NIH) has been working very hard to make headway in the fight against HIV. He noted that, “2015 was a very good year for HIV cure and HIV prevention in ways we haven’t seen in previous years due to several new breakthroughs in clinical trials.” He continued to say that although researchers have not yet found a cure, they appear to be on the right track, and “we’re getting closer than we were” to a cure.

Breakthroughs in HIV Research

For individuals living with the virus, ART has been life-changing. However, once treatment is stopped, there is a possibility that the latent cells of the virus can become reactivated. This has made the hunt for a potential cure exceedingly difficult in the past, but new research has opened several doorways that may eventually lead to a cure. In the first study covered in this article, researchers from the Blood Systems Research Institute, University of California at San Francisco, and the University of Hawaii, found that the human sugar-binding protein galectin-9 can “poison” the virus, by reactivating latent cells, and thus exposing them to the immune system. With this help, the immune system is able to target the cells and potentially eliminate them. Researchers believe that galectin-9 has the potential to eventually serve as an alternative to antiretroviral therapy and may play a role in a future cure.

In another study, researchers from Oxford University partnered up with scientists from Oxfordshire, Immunocore Ltd, a biotech company, and found that “engineered immune-mobilising T-cell receptors-based drugs (‘ImmTAVs’)” may also have the potential to contribute to a cure. Similar to galectin-9, they were also successful in exposing latent cells to the immune system for elimination.

Another breakthrough in HIV research was made by researchers from the Molecular Medicine Partnership Unit, which is a collaboration between the European Molecular Biology Laboratory and Heidelberg University Hospital. After testing an inhibitor drug, they found that the drug was able to lock “the viral structure in its immature form so that it cannot be cut.” This discovery is important because in order for the virus to matures and spread throughout the body, it needs to cut the connections between the capsid protein and the spacer peptide 1 and rearrange the pieces. With this drug, it will not be able to cut that connection, and thus, cannot spread.

Growing HIV Numbers in Russia Make Global Eradication a Longshot

Despite the fact that public health leaders worldwide came together to develop a number of initiatives that they hoped would bring an end to the HIV/AIDS epidemic by 2030, increasing cases in Russia suggest that it might not happen as soon as previously thought. About 1 in 50 people in Yekaterinburg, one of the country’s largest metropolises, are infected with the virus. Anita Raj, PhD, MS, professor of medicine and global public health and director of the Center on Gender Equity and Health at the University of California, San Diego, told Contagion that “injection drug use is a key driver of HIV in the country,” with 500,000 Russians estimated to be active injection drug users. This, coupled with the public health response, is deterring Russia from cutting down on these numbers.

Jeffrey H. Samet, MD, MA, MPH, chief, General Internal Medicine, and professor of medicine and community health sciences at the Boston University Schools of Medicine and Public Health, told Contagion that there are limited needle exchange programs—or syringe services programs, programs that the Centers for Disease Control have dubbed successful in reducing HIV transmission—and limited access to ART for these drug users. With these poor preventive measures, Russia still has a long way to go when it comes to putting a stop to the virus.

New and Pipeline ART Agents to Treat HIV-1

Although antiretroviral therapy can significantly reduce morbidity and mortality in those living with HIV, there are a number of complexities—side effects, adherence, allergies, socioeconomic factors, among others—that call for the development of new treatment options for the virus. It is particularly important for HIV-positive individuals to choose a treatment regimen that allows for minimal adverse effects and is both safe and effective. This article provided insight on a number of newer ART formulations that are at different stages in the developmental process and how they are all being analyzed for their potential to provide HIV-1 treatment, PrEP, or even a cure. These treatments must not only be effective and affordable, but there should also be “minimal pill burden” in order to encourage patient adherence to the treatment. Advancements in these formulations—such as single-pill complete ART and long-acting injectable agents—can completely change the game when it comes to HIV treatment. For a more in depth look at new and pipeline agents, be sure to read the rest of the article.

Male Circumcision vs HIV-2 Prevalence

Perhaps due to the fact that HIV-2 is not as widespread nor as virulent as HIV-1, there is less research available that focuses on it. However, a recent study took a closer look at the correlation between male circumcision and rates of HIV-2. It is known that male circumcision has been linked to reducing HIV-1 prevalence in the past—the World Health Organization cites that foreskin removal “reduces the rate of heterosexually-acquired HIV” by a whopping 60%—but researchers have yet to investigate the link between circumcision and HIV-2 prevalence: until now. Their results? According to the study authors, “We found, as far as we know for the first time, that HIV-2 prevalence in 1985-91, in West Africa, shows a substantial ecological association with [male circumcision], as has been demonstrated for HIV-1, for Africa as a whole, at about the same time period.” They noted that their findings reinforce the notion that male circumcision does play a role in preventing transmission of HIV-2 in addition to HIV-1 and other retroviruses. Contagion’s coverage of this research sparked much debate on Twitter over the practice of male circumcision.