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HIV/AIDS research includes all medical research that attempts to prevent, treat, or cure HIV/AIDS, as well as fundamental research about the nature of HIV as an infectious agent and AIDS as the disease caused by HIV.
Many governments and research institutions participate in HIV/AIDS research. Such research includes behavioral health interventions, such as sex education, as well as drug development, such as research into microbicides for sexually transmitted diseases, HIV vaccines, and antiretroviral drugs. Examples of other medical research areas are pre-exposure prophylaxis, post-exposure prophylaxis, and circumcision and HIV.
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The most common kind of HIV/AIDS research is done at community levels by local health organizations. In this research, the health organization develops a health education strategy for its community. Typically, the health organization wants to share information about HIV/AIDS, including facts such as how HIV spreads and how people can prevent HIV infection. Often such health campaigns are combined with efforts to distribute condoms and to encourage people to use them to prevent HIV infection.
Management of HIV/AIDS
Research to improve current treatments includes decreasing side effects of current drugs, further simplifying drug regimens to improve adherence, and determining better sequences of regimens to manage drug resistance. There are variations in the health community in recommendations on what treatment doctors should recommend for people with HIV. One question, for example, is determining when a doctor should recommend that a patient take antiretroviral drugs and what drugs a doctor may recommend. This field also includes the development of antiretroviral drugs.
Circumcision and HIV
A body of scientific evidence has shown that men who are circumcised are less likely to contract HIV than men who are uncircumcized.
Pre- and post-exposure prophylaxis
"Pre-exposure prophylaxis" refers to the practice of taking some drugs before being exposed to HIV infection, and having a decreased chance of contracting HIV as a result of taking that drug. Post-exposure prophylaxis refers to taking some drugs quickly after being exposed to HIV, while the virus is in a person's body but before the virus has established itself. In both cases, the drugs would be the same as those used to treat persons with HIV, and the intent of taking the drugs would be to eradicate the virus before the person becomes irreversibly infected.
Post-exposure prophylaxis is recommended in anticipated cases of HIV exposure, such as if a nurse somehow has blood-to-blood contact with a patient in the course of work, or if someone without HIV requests the drugs immediately after having unprotected sex with a person who might have HIV. Pre-exposure prophylaxis is sometimes an option for HIV-negative persons who feel that they are at increased risk of HIV infection, such as an HIV-negative person in a serodiscordant relationship with an HIV-positive partner.
Current research in these agents include drug development, efficacy testing, and practice recommendations for using drugs for HIV prevention.
A long-term nonprogressor is a person who is infected with HIV, but whose body, for whatever reason, naturally controls the virus so that the infection does not progress to the AIDS stage. Such persons are of great interest to researchers, who feel that a study of their physiologies could provide a more in-depth understanding of the virus and disease.
An HIV vaccine is a vaccine which would be given to a person who does not have HIV, and then subsequently if that vaccinated person were exposed to HIV, then the vaccine would protect that person and reduce the likelihood that the person would become infected by HIV. Currently, no effective HIV vaccine exists. Various HIV vaccines have been tested in clinical trials almost since the discovery of HIV.
Only a vaccine is thought to be able to halt the pandemic. This is because a vaccine would cost less, thus being affordable for developing countries, and would not require daily treatment. However, after over 20 years of research, HIV-1 remains a difficult target for a vaccine.
In 2003 a clinical trial in Thailand tested an HIV vaccine called RV 144. In 2009, the researchers reported that this vaccine showed some efficacy in protecting recipients from HIV infection. Results of this trial give the first supporting evidence of any vaccine being effective in lowering the risk of contracting HIV. Other vaccine trials continue worldwide.
Microbicides for sexually transmitted diseases
A microbicide for sexually transmitted diseases is a gel which would be applied to the skin - perhaps a rectal microbicide for persons who engage in anal sex or a vaginal microbicide for persons who engage in vaginal sex - and if infected body fluid such as blood or semen were to touch the gel, then HIV in that fluid would be destroyed and the people having sex would be less likely to spread infection between themselves.
On March 7, 2013, the Washington University in St. Louis website published a report by Julia Evangelou Strait, in which it was reported that ongoing nanoparticle research showed that nanoparticles loaded with various compounds could be used to target infectious agents whilst leaving healthy cells unaffected. In the study detailed by this report, it was found that nanoparticles loaded with Mellitin, a compound found in Bee venom, could deliver the agent to the HIV, causing the breakdown of the outer protein envelope of the virus. This, they say, could lead to the production of a vaginal gel which could help prevent infection by disabling the virus. Dr Joshua Hood goes on to explain that beyond preventative measures in the form of a topical gel, he sees "potential for using nanoparticles with melittin as therapy for existing HIV infections, especially those that are drug-resistant. The nanoparticles could be injected intravenously and, in theory, would be able to clear HIV from the blood stream."
Stem cell transplantation
In 2007, Timothy Ray Brown, a 40-year-old HIV-positive man, also known as "the Berlin Patient", was given a stem cell transplant as part of his treatment for acute myeloid leukemia (AML). A second transplant was made a year later after a relapse. The donor was chosen not only for genetic compatibility but also for being homozygous for a CCR5-Δ32 mutation that confers resistance to HIV infection. After 20 months without antiretroviral drug treatment, it was reported that HIV levels in Brown's blood, bone marrow, and bowel were below the limit of detection. The virus remained undetectable over three years after the first transplant. Although the researchers and some commentators have characterized this result as a cure, others suggest that the virus may remain hidden in tissues such as the brain (which acts as a viral reservoir). Stem cell treatment remains investigational because of its anecdotal nature, the disease and mortality risk associated with stem cell transplants, and the difficulty of finding suitable donors.
The failure of vaccine candidates to protect against HIV infection and progression to AIDS has led to a renewed focus on the biological mechanisms responsible for HIV latency. A limited period of therapy combining anti-retrovirals with drugs targeting the latent reservoir may one day allow for total eradication of HIV infection. Researchers have discovered an abzyme that can destroy the protein gp120 CD4 binding site. This protein is common to all HIV variants as it is the attachment point for B lymphocytes and subsequent compromising of the immune system.
A turning point for HIV research occurred in 2007, following the bone marrow transplant of HIV sufferer Timothy Ray Brown. Brown underwent the procedure after he developed leukaemia and the donor of the bone marrow possessed a rare genetic mutation that caused Brown cells to become resistant to HIV. Brown attained the title of the "Berlin Patient" in the HIV research field and is the first man to have been cured of the virus. As of April 2013, two primary approaches are being pursued in the search for a HIV cure: The first is gene therapy that aims to develop a HIV-resistant immune system for patients, and the second is being led by Danish scientists, who are conducting clinical trials to strip the HIV from human DNA and have it destroyed permanently by the immune system.
Two more cases with similarities to the Brown case have occurred since the 2007 discovery; however, they differ because the transplanted marrow has not been confirmed as mutated. The cases were publicized in a July 2013 CNN story that relayed the experience of two patients who had taken antiretroviral therapy for years before they developed lymphoma, a cancer of the lymph nodes. They then underwent lymphoma chemotherapy and bone marrow transplantation, while remaining on an antiretroviral regimen; while they retained traces of HIV four months afterwards, six to nine months after the transplant, the two patients had no detectable trace of HIV in their blood. However, the managing clinician Dr. Timothy Heinrich stated at the Malaysian International AIDS Society Conference where the findings were presented:
It's possible, again, that the virus could return in a week, it could return in a month -- in fact, some mathematical modeling predicts that virus could even return one to two years after we stop antiretroviral therapy, so we really don't know what the long-term or full effects of stem cell transplantation and viral persistence is.
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