Learning that you’ve been diagnosed with HIV is life changing news—one that can prove to be a difficult journey. Thankfully, with the advancement of science and technology, HIV is a manageable health condition. Antiretroviral therapy (ART) is available to treat the virus and reduce your viral load so low that it can no longer be detected by blood test or be transmitted through sex.
However, the FDA has recently given Excision BioTherapeutics the ‘all clear’ to begin human trials of a CRISPR-based HIV treatment — possibly a cure — that’s administered in just one IV fusion.
While those living with HIV can be confident in the fact that they can live as long as uninfected people, a treatment that’s administered by a daily pill in comparison to a single intravenous infusion that will last a lifetime are two very different things.
According to HIV.gov, if you fail to be consistent with your medication exactly as your doctor prescribed, you run the risk of having the HIV multiply in your body and weaken your immune system. In addition, skipping doses makes it easier for HIV to evolve into different forms, ultimately making yourself resistant to the medication and limiting the options you have in terms of HIV treatment.
In the war against HIV, many procedures have been put to the test to find the cure. In a more recent discovery, doctors in London have found some success in bone marrow transplants. Despite many attempts with this process over the span of decades, we now know that three people have successfully been cured of HIV. This means that all of the virus has been eradicated from the person's body and anything left is incapable of causing any illness or complications.
However, the procedure is said to be extremely risky and scientists have made it clear that it’s too soon to consider this a cure. In fact, they refer to these three patients as them being in remission.
The new human trial, known as EBT-101 is taking a different route. The treatment being proposed by Excision BioTherapeutics uses CRISPR (a genetic engineering tool that uses a CRISPR sequence of DNA and its associated protein to edit the base pairs of a gene) to hunt down HIV DNA within human cells and cut it in three places.
CEO of Excision, Daniel Dornbusch speaks out during a press release stating,
“If you just make a single cut, the virus can mutate around it. We make multiple cuts to deactivate the viral genome.”
As of now, EBT-101 is not full proof yet. Nonetheless, scientists seem to think that they’re on the right track. Tests have been done in human cells, mouse models and non-human primates infected with SIV (the simian version of HIV.) What we know is that EBT-101 can eliminate HIV from the host's cells, but the amount of virus removed varies.
Though we know EBT-101 is not consistent in removing HIV from certain organisms all together, experts are claiming it may not be necessary. In an interview with the Philadelphia Inquirer, Tricia Burdo, a cell and molecular biologist at Temple University’s Katz School of Medicine poses the question,
“Do we need to completely eliminate every viral copy to achieve the cure? We don’t know yet?”
Many, like myself, may be wondering, “If the viral load is not completely eradicated and only significantly lowers it, what makes this specific trial a potential cure when ART accomplishes the same thing?”
One could question the validity of these pharmaceutical companies and what they’re selling when history has shown them to be deceiving. Is this simply another way to put money into the pharmacies pockets or do those living with HIV truly see this as a more desirable option?
Gaye Magazine spoke with Patricia Massena, a case manager for Housing Works, a New York City-based non-profit fighting AIDS and homelessness, to provide stable housing for those living with HIV. When asked how this potential new “cure” could affect the clients that she commonly works with, she responds,
“If this trial proves to be successful, this can be a huge game changer for those living with mental health issues and are positive. A lot of times when they’re going through something like a bipolar episode, they tend to forget and skip several doses of their medication so their ART is no longer effective. Taking ART is a strict regimen; you skip one or two doses and you have to be given a new form of ART. By the time you receive a second or third form of ART, your viral load is so high that you become diagnosed with AIDS. Once you’re diagnosed with AIDS, there’s no going back.”
As of now we still don’t have the answers to a lot of our questions and there's no way to tell when those questions will be answered. One thing we do know is that the war against HIV is in our favor and as scientists continue to find the cure, we must continue to protect ourselves and hope that one day, we all will be a witness to the end of HIV.