Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome – often referred to as the perfect disease – has claimed the lives of countless millions of people worldwide. Shortly after the discovery of the virus in 1981, many simply gave up hope. World leaders in research agreed that “a cure for AIDS is virtually impossible by the end of this century.” Jay Levy, a researcher at the University of California, explained that the best we could hope for would be a means of prolonging the lives of those infected with HIV.
Since then, billions of dollars have been poured into doing exactly that: developing treatments for a disease which seemingly had no cure.
A little background
The reason that this relatively simple virus stirred up the entire scientific community and has made such a name for itself is all based on a single enzyme called Reverse Transcriptase. This protein is what gives HIV the prestigious status of ‘retrovirus.’ Simply, its purpose is the opposite of that of RNA polymerase. The virion has a single stranded RNA genome, which needs to be transcribed into DNA before it can be embedded into the host cell’s DNA and become effective. Here’s the kicker: this reverse transcriptase is extremely bad at what it does, with an estimated error rate of 1 in every 1700 nucleotides, compared to that of our own DNA polymerases which have an error rate of 1 in 100 000. Because the enzyme that decodes the HIV virus’s genome is so erroneous, the virus mutates very rapidly and evolves to resist almost any treatment we can throw at it.
Not to be a pessimist but…..
Exciting as it may be, the combination of chemotherapy, antiretroviral drugs and stem cell transplant as a possible treatment for HIV/AIDS is dangerous, difficult and expensive. Bone marrow transplants alone are very expensive, with a 15 percent fatality rate making this treatment unfeasible for the majority of HIV positive patients.
Although it’s still too early to say whether the patients have indeed been fully cured, this story provides, if nothing else, a glimpse of hope for a cure to arguably the greatest pandemic that has ever plagued the human race.
CDC. “Epidemiologic Notes and Reports Persistent, Generalized Lymphadenopathy among Homosexual Males.” Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, 5 Feb.
Simons, Lewis M. “Aids Cure Impossible This Century, Predicts Co-Discoverer Of Virus.” seattletimes.com. The Seattle Times Company, 8 Aug. 1994. Web. 16 July 2013. JD Roberts, K Bebenek, TA Kunkel. “The Accuracy of Reverse Transcriptase from HIV-1.” sciencemag.org. HighWire Press, 25 Nov. 1988. Web. 16 July 2013
John Bongaarts, François Pelletier, and Patrick Gerland. “Poverty, Gender and Youth, Global Trends in AIDS Mortality.” Population Council, 2009. Web. 16 July 2013. Chen, Yi-Bin. “Bone Marrow Transplant.” U.S National Library of Medicine. U.S. National Library of Medicine, 7 Feb. 2012. Web. 16 July 2013.
Herper, Matthew. “Hint To A Cure? Two Men Remain HIV Free After Bone Marrow Transplants.” Forbes. Forbes Magazine, 03 July 2013. Web. 16 July 2013.
“AIDS.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, 15 July 2013. Web. 16 July 2013.
Chan, Amanda L. “Closer To An HIV Cure? No Trace Of Virus After 2 Men Underwent Stem Cell Transplants.” The Huffington Post. TheHuffingtonPost.com, 03 July 2013. Web. 16 July 2013. Image from: http://topnews.net.nz/data/HIV-AIDS_6.jpg