Scientists have claimed to discover a rare group of people in the Democratic Republic of Congo who have tested positive for HIV antibodies but are living with low to non-detectable levels of viral load without the aid of antiretroviral medicines, potentially paving the way for vaccine development or possibly even a cure.
Abbott announced in a news release posted Tuesday that the prevalence of this group, dubbed HIV elite controllers, was 2.7%-4.3% in the DRC, compared to 0.1%-2% prevalence worldwide. Findings from the study, which was published in EBioMedicine, could help uncover links between natural virus suppression and future treatments.
“The finding of a large group of HIV elite controllers in the DRC is significant considering that HIV is a life-long, chronic condition that typically progresses over time,” said Tom Quinn, M.D., director of Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health, and chief of the International HIV/AIDS Research Section of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, National Institutes of Health, and one of the study authors. “There have been rare instances of the infection not progressing in individuals prior to this study, but this high frequency is unusual and suggests there is something interesting happening at a physiological level in the DRC that’s not random.”
Abbott has been involved in decades-long HIV surveillance to monitor and identify mutations in the virus which helps with diagnostic efforts and containment. The current work is being done in collaboration with Johns Hopkins University, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, the University of Missouri-Kansas City and the Universite Protestant au Congo.
There currently is no cure for HIV, but with proper medication it can be controlled. Medication is recommended for all patients diagnosed with HIV, as delaying treatment can harm the immune system and raise the risk of developing AIDS, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
“Global surveillance work keeps us ahead of emerging infectious diseases – and in this instance we realized we had found something that could be another step toward unlocking a cure for HIV,” said Michael Berg, Ph.D., an associate research fellow in infectious disease research at Abbott, and lead author of the study. “The global research community has more work to do – but harnessing what we learn from this study and sharing it with other researchers puts us closer to new treatments that could possibly eliminate HIV.”