Written by Douglas Stewart
It has been almost 40 years since the Human Immunodeficiency Virus epidemic was first detected, to much consternation and alarm. HIV is a retrovirus, thought to have originated from the closely related Simian Immunodeficiency Virus, that crossed from chimpanzees to humans in central Africa approximately 100 years ago. HIV is the causative agent of AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome), a disease of our immune system that renders patients susceptible to a range of pathogens and diseases that do not affect otherwise healthy people. It is these infections that lead to the majority of AIDS-related fatalities.

There are two major types of the virus. HIV-1 is the pandemic type while HIV-2 is mostly confined to western Africa. While more recently, emerging viruses like Ebola and Zika have been grabbing the front-page headlines, it remains important to remember the persevering legacy of HIV and its continued impact on human lives across the planet today.

The numbers surrounding HIV are truly sobering. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that more than 35 million people have died from complications related to AIDS. Of those 35 million, 1 million people lost their lives to the disease in 2016 alone. Currently, it is thought that approximately 36.7 million of our planet’s 7.6 billion people are infected with the virus, with 1.8 million new diagnoses being made last year alone. Continental Africa has been the worst affected by the epidemic. Two thirds of new infections diagnosed in 2016 were in Africa, and according to WHO 25.6 million Africans currently live with HIV infections.

Since HIV forced its way to the forefront of the public consciousness in the 1980s a great deal of work has been done in labs across the world to help understand the virus and its disease, to come up with treatments that help manage infection and ultimately to discover a cure to curtail HIVs spread.

This work has resulted in some important steps forward. Diagnosis can now be carried out with rapid antibody-based diagnosis tests. Speedy diagnosis allows patients to start treatments earlier which increases treatment outcome. This treatment usually comes in the form of Anti-Retroviral Therapy, or ART. This combination of drugs helps to suppress the virus, and halts the progression of disease. This also prevents HIV patients from spreading the virus to new patients. While never curing them of the virus, ART can allow HIV patients to live full and productive lives. The current standard treatment for HIV infection is a combination of three drugs. This treatment is known as Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Treatment (HAART). The use of three drugs not only improves patient outcome but also prevents HIV from developing any resistance. Where available, HAART has dramatically reduced the death rate from the virus. However, a cure for HIV remains elusive due to the way the virus infects us (being a retrovirus, HIV inserts itself into our DNA in our cells making it extraordinarily difficult to remove), although hope continues to grow that a cure or a vaccine will be discovered soon. In 40 years we have learned a lot about the virus but there is still much we do not know.

Here at the CVR we study HIV-1 in relation to our innate immune system. Specifically, we are interested in the role interferons and interferon stimulated genes (ISGs) have to play in blocking new HIV-1 infections and the virus’ replication inside human cells. We hope to be able to contribute to our understanding of virus/host interactions and use this understanding to potentially develop novel therapeutic targets that could be of use in the fight against HIV/AIDS.    

Today, on World AIDS day, we take some time to remember the myriad lives that have been, and continue to be, devastated by HIV/AIDS in Africa and across the globe. In just one century, HIV-1 has left an indelible mark on human health, culture and prosperity. We should also consider the work that has been and continues to be done to further elucidate the mysteries of this virus and its disease. Much has been done, there is still much to do. 

LINKS worth following:

World AIDS day page

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