Progress in AIDS cure, expert says

By Stephanie Grella, Staff Writer

Marking the 26th annual World AIDS Day, NYU’s College of Dentistry hosted a seminar to discuss the progress of an HIV/AIDS cure. David Levy, a virologist at NYU, spoke on Dec. 1 to highlight some of the research he and fellow colleagues have gathered, remaining hopeful of current and future HIV treatments.

With 35 million current HIV-infected patients across the globe, Levy said research objectives have shifted from creating a vaccine to finding a cure for the pandemic. Levy emphasized the ultimate goal of eradicating the virus from each infected individual.

Levy gave the exceptional example of Timothy Ray Brown, a man who, after suffering from leukemia and undergoing two bone marrow transplants, was cured of HIV.

“The idea that this is even possible has, to a large extent, been an impetus for the flowering of cure research,” Levy said. “There’s hope that it might actually be possible to eradicate the virus from people.”

There are currently 36 medications licensed for HIV treatment, including a post-exposure prophylaxis preventing transmission from mother to child, which breaks the chain of HIV transmission.

Testing models like the clinical studies that focus on HIV-positive individuals and using animal models to experiment treatment were discussed during the seminar. The models continue to lie at the forefront of research. Levy’s lab predominantly uses the cell culture model, which focuses on primary cells in vitro.

Levy said, however, that animal models remain the most promising of models, using both monkeys and mice.

“Animal models are of course extremely valuable, and monkeys have become a much more useful model,” Levy said. “It’s a hopeful time in this field because there’s a lot going on.”

Candy Petrolle, an administrator in NYU’s basic science department, found Levy’s seminar to be an enlightening reminder of HIV research’s progress. The lack of medical students in attendance, however, disappointed her.

“I didn’t know about some of the drugs they’ve been using, so that was informative for me,” Petrolle said. “But I was hoping more students would come today, because they’re the ones who will be treating HIV-infected patients in the future, not us.”

Levy has begun screening compounds that could reverse latent cells carrying the HIV virus, focusing his research directly at the latent virus.

“What we need is to reach down molecularly to that latent virus and cause that cell to die, and that’s what cure therapy research is all about at this point,” Levy said. “Everything’s been going in incremental steps.”

Dentistry professor Joan Phelan said NYU has been at the forefront of HIV research throughout the turbulent history of the pandemic, improving the research and treatment over the past two decades.

“From the very beginning, we were already asking our students to take care of HIV patients, and now, students working in the clinic have HIV patients and treat them extremely well,” Phelan said. “This seminar is not a celebration, but a marking of what’s happening in HIV infection in 2014.”

A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Dec. 2 print edition. Email Stephanie Grella at [email protected]