Study Headed by Academy Member Reports Early HIV Therapy Substantially Curbs Transmission

UNC’s Dr. Myron Cohen is lead investigator in NIH/NIAID-funded international study which lends support to “treatment-as-prevention” in the fight against HIV/AIDS

People living with HIV—the virus that causes AIDS—were found to be 96 percent less likely to transmit the virus to an uninfected partner if they began to receive anti-retroviral drug treatments early, while their immune systems were relatively uncompromised. That finding comes from a new study recently released by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID).

The clinical trial—known as HPTN 052—was slated to last through 2015, but a panel of outside experts found the preliminary results to be so convincing that they decided to release the findings early.

 “We think that these results will be important to help improve both HIV treatment and prevention,” said Dr. Myron Cohen, a recent speaker at the Academy, and lead investigator of the HPTN 052 trial. .

Despite the fact that previous smaller studies have pointed to the idea of "treatment as prevention," the HPTN 052 trial—which involved 1,763 heterosexual couples with one HIV-positive and one –negative partner—provides the most definitive evidence to date of the power of anti-retroviral medication of suppressing the capacity to transmit infection.

Discussing the results of his study in detail in a keynote address at a New York Academy of Sciences’ conference “Cracking the Safe: Advances in HIV / AIDS Prevention and Treatment,” on May 16, 2011, Cohen underlined the inherent importance of these results, noting that the HPTN 052  trial's results suggests that ART will play an increasingly important role in HIV prevention in the future.

Globally, access to antiretroviral drug treatment has been expanding enormously over the past decade, but hurdles such as high costs, difficulties with early-detection and fear of testing, among others, remain. Even for those individuals already on an antiretroviral regimen, the preventative power of antiretrovirals depends on a close adherence to the daily drug regimen.

Further population level studies looking at the connection between increased treatment and HIV prevention are underway in both Botswana and the United States, Cohen told his Academy audience during his keynote address.

 As noted by the Wall Street Journal, a vaccine remains “the holy grail of AIDS prevention research,” but the results of this new study nonetheless hold the potential to dramatically constrain the rate of infections if early treatment is stepped up.