A series of media outlets have erroneously reported that scientists may be just three years away from developing a cure for HIV. This false claim traces to an article published in the United Kingdom’s The Telegraph concerning researchers who recently succeeded in editing HIV’s genetic code out of immune cells in a laboratory setting.
“Cure for HIV possible within three years as scientists snip virus from cells,” The Telegraph’s headline touts. Posted on April 1, the article was no April Fool’s Day prank. Its incorrect claim has fanned across the Internet, parroted by Fortune, Fox News, AOL News and various others. The body of the Telegraph piece cites the position among researchers at the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University that they can move their research, which employed the cutting-edge CRISPR/Cas9 gene-editing method to cut HIV from immune cells, into human trials within three years.
What the Telegraph article critically misrepresents, for starters, is how the clinical trials process works. There are three clinical trial phases required before a medical treatment can qualify for U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA) approval. Each successive phase of this process entails a larger population of participants, a longer study period and greater overall complexity. The entire process typically takes many years.
Simply moving an HIV cure method into Phase I trials in no way signifies success in achieving the feat of finding a therapy that will allow HIV-positive individuals to go off antiretroviral (ARV) treatment and not see their virus rebound.
“We have made no claim that our technology will cure HIV in three years,” says Kamel Khalili, PhD, director of the Center for Neurovirology & Comprehensive NeuroAIDS Center at Temple and the lead author of the HIV gene-editing study. “We hope to begin initial clinical trials within the next three years, and this will depend on our results from animal studies for safety and efficacy and the availability of funding.”
Khalili says that in early human research of this cure therapy, researchers will give the gene-editing treatment for “some period of time” to HIV-positive people who are on ARV treatment. Then, after taking the participants off their ARVs, the scientists will determine whether the gene therapy has eradicated HIV from the body and thus prevented the virus from rebounding.
In March 2013, reports shot around the world that a baby in Mississippi had been cured by an atypically aggressive ARV treatment provided shortly after birth. At the time, the child had remained off ARVs for 10 months—starting at the age of 18 months—without a viral rebound. However, triumphant claims that the child had been cured proved premature; after she had been off treatment for 27 months, she developed a detectable viral load and was put back on ARV therapy.
The main challenge facing HIV cure researchers is how to eliminate the viral reservoir, an amorphous and still not wholly defined entity made up in part of cells latently infected with the virus (meaning the cells are not replicating). ARVs can go after HIV only while an infected cell is actively making new copies of the virus. Some latent cells can remain dormant for years. So claiming victory in a cure attempt may remain contingent on the possibility that an individual still harbors even trace amounts of such latently infected cells that may one day begin to replicate again, repopulating his or her body with virus, just as occurred in the child in Mississippi.
Most researchers in the HIV cure field believe that a practical cure for the virus, if it ever comes, will take many years, if not decades, to develop. Additionally, such a feat will likely require a combination of treatments.
This is not the first time The Telegraph has spawned a rash of hyperbolic and inaccurate reporting about the supposed imminence of an HIV cure. In April 2013, the publication erroneously claimed that Danish researchers were “mere months” from finding a cure for the virus. In that case the report concerned a cure therapy that was only in Phase I human trials.
Articles falsely claiming that the cure for HIV is around the corner have been common in recent years, egged on by the popularity of non-profit and governmental agency slogans that promise a forthcoming “end of AIDS”. In addition, many news reports exaggerate the importance of the results of individual HIV cure studies while downplaying—or utterly ignoring—the numerous obstacles remaining in the quest for a cure. A typical headline will state that a cure study’s findings indicate scientists are “one step closer to a cure,” without acknowledging that such a step may amount to but one in the scientific equivalent of a marathon.
To read a 2015 POZ feature article on the state of HIV cure research, click here.
Update: On April 6, after considerable resistance, The Telegraph finally conceded its error and revised the erroneous article's headline and opening sentence.