Research into developing a widely available, functional cure for HIV/AIDS is moving at breakneck speed, prompted by the case of a former Seattle man who became the first person ever cured of the virus, and carried out, in part, by Seattle-area researchers.
The holy grail of HIV/AIDS research: a one-shot cure.
"I would be incredibly disappointed if we didn't have a functional cure for AIDS in the next decade," says Jeffrey Laurence, a Cornell University researcher and a consultant for The American Foundation for AIDS Research.
A dozen doctors from around the nation, including three from Seattle, met last week in Philadelphia to discuss their research.Much of their work focuses on CCR5, essentially a doorway HIV uses to enter cells.
"We are interested in not only the knock-out or knock-down of this doorway, but also inhibiting the fusion of HIV to these cells," said Hans-Peter Kiem, a doctor with Seattle's Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.
Many researchers had abandoned hope for finding a cure, until 2008. Then a former Seattle man, Timothy Ray Brown, his body wracked by leukemia and infected with HIV, underwent an experimental stem-cell replacement operation in Berlin.
Brown was cured of leukemia and, for the first time in history, HIV. Even the most sensitive tests and biopsies have failed to detect the virus in his body.
With Brown, 100 percent of his cells were replaced with donor cells that didn't have CCR5.
One focus of the research is to replicate Brown's case, but instead of having to replace 100 percent of cells, scientists hope to replace a smaller amount, say 10 percent. These cells would create "safe harbors," Laurence said.
"Presumably, those cells can't be infected," he said. "Those already infected, we can continue to give therapy to the patient, and hopefully down the line, there are these safe harbor cells, and they can take over."
The other two area scientists who attended last week's conference, which took place at Villanova University, were Irwin Berstein and Keith Jerome, both doctors with the Hutchinson Center.
While researchers expect to have a functional cure within a decade, it wouldn't be readily available to millions of developing world patients. For that to happen, scientists would have to develop the holy grail of HIV/AIDS research: a one-injection cure.
"What we need is one injection that will carry a virus, carrying a gene that will knock out CCR5, and inject it into a person's body, and that virus will home in on enough stem cells or T-cells and start affecting this cure," Laurence said.
While it will take time, both Laurence and Kiem said they are optimistic it will happen.
"That will certainly be years down the road," Kiem said. "That's certainly what we hope."