A Cure Within Reach?
Ironically, the dip in the awareness levels comes during a time when researchers are now closer than ever to finding a potential cure for AIDS. In 2007, Timothy Ray Brown, known as “the Berlin Patient,” completed a stem-call transplant in Berlin that is thought to have cured him, as he remains HIV-free today.
After more than 20 years of researching for a cure, David Harrich came close to giving up. Dr. Harrich, a researcher with the Queensland Medical Institute in Australia, had seen the rise of AIDS/HIV during his time as a research assistant at UCLA in the late 80s. Though he was living and working on the virus in 1980s Los Angeles, a breeding ground for AIDS, Dr. Harrich says he didn’t understand the tragedy of the pandemic and the death toll that would come from it.
Now, a cure is potentially in his reach. In late 2007, Dr. Harrich decided to give his “backburner project” one last real attempt. He and his group of researchers had been developing a technique that would turn the crucial HIV protein against itself and stop from replicating. When Dr. Harrich’s Ph.D. student returned from running the tests, something was different.
“When he came back and showed me the results, I couldn’t believe it,” says Dr. Harrich. “The protein had shown a strong ability to inhibit HIV. After all these years, I thought he had made a mistake. I couldn’t believe him. He did it three or four times and came back with exactly the same result.”
Trials on animals are to begin this year, signaling another step closer to a possible cure that is still a long way way. “We know we can do it short-term,” Dr. Harrich says. “The question is if we can do it long-term. We think it has a decent chance.”
Earlier this year, a Mississippi girl was declared the first child to be “functionally cured” of HIV, 2 years after doctors gave the child—whose mother was HIV positive—high doses of three antiretroviral drugs within 30 hours of the girl being born.
More recent developments: In France, a team of researchers found that early and effective HIV therapy within the first 2 months of infection could eventually control the virus without the use of drugs, making it perhaps the closest thing to a cure to this point. And at Stanford University, researchers have created HIV-resistant T-cells that, when used, would eventually build an immune system made up entirely of HIV-resistant cells.
But until an actual cure comes, awareness and prevention remain the best defenses. And now more than ever, some of the most prominent advocates for AIDS/HIV awareness realize they’re needed to eliminate complacency when it comes to infection prevention.
Greg Louganis continues to be one of the biggest voices. It’s been 25 years since the four-time Olympic gold-medal diver learned he was HIV-positive. Back then, he— along with the majority of people to contract infection at the time—thought it signaled a certain death. But through steady HIV medication, Louganis’ story has been one of the more notable rallying cries for continued awareness.
Louganis knows this, but he doesn’t want you to take possible HIV contraction any less seriously because of his story. The idea that HIV medications will automatically make everything better is a slippery slope, which makes increased awareness for prevention all the more important for today’s at-risk populations.
“When you’re young, you don’t think you’re going to get it,” says Louganis, now a judge on ABC’s celebrity diving showSplash. “You’re immune to a lot of things. That is until it happens.”
Louganis is living proof that HIV isn’t the death sentence it once was, but also that it hasn’t gone away—and that its risk is still real.
“I think that living with HIV for as long as I have, it is my constant companion,” he says. “It’s there. I’m aware. I try to be as mindful as I can be, and not take anything for granted, which has really taught me a great appreciation for what I have and where I am.”