Last year will long be remembered for its remarkable advances in the diagnosis and prevention of HIV; OraSure Technologies gained FDA approval for the first-ever at-home, over-the-counter, and needle-free HIV test, while Gilead's drug Truvada, a therapeutic initially prescribed only for HIV-positive patients, was approved as a prophylactic medication for at-risk individuals.
But now, just months into 2013, a landmark discovery in the treatment -- rather than prevention -- of HIV has been announced.
Public health phenomenon
Late Sunday evening, a number of media outlets reported that a child who had been infected with HIV at birth in 2010 had been cured following a course of treatment that lasted only a year and a half. According to the physicians involved in the infant's care, a mixture of three drugs -- commonly referred to as a "cocktail" -- was administered to the infant just 30 hours after birth.
There have been varying reports as to the exact combination that was used, but an article published by Bloomberg stated that two drugs made by a Pfizer (NYSE:PFE) and GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK) joint venture -- lamivudine and zidovudine -- along with AbbVie's (NYSE:ABBV) Kaletra formed the treatment.The newborn was kept on the drugs for only 18 months and, for reasons that are still unclear, was not treated for the next 10 months. Miraculously, after locating the child, doctors could not find any evidence that the patient was still infected with the disease.
The limited data available today suggests that it was the swift intervention of the doctors involved in this infant's care that made the difference; administering this drug cocktail as soon after birth as possible, rather than days or weeks afterwards, could be the key to curing HIV-positive newborns.
Researchers will now have to establish exactly how this child was cured before others can be helped. A standard protocol that can be widely adopted has to be determined through clinical trials, and both the optimal administration times and best combination of drugs must be established. One of the major disappointments of this revelation is that a widespread cure for HIV-positive adults remains elusive. Aside from one rare case, there have been no other reported instances of patients who have been cured to date.
What are the implications?
Clearly, the impact of this discovery could be monumental. While the World Health Organization reports that an HIV-positive woman on antiretroviral medications can reduce the chance of passing the disease on to her child to below 5%, more than 300,000 infants were infected at birth last year. Less than 0.06% of those children were born in the United States, but the only way to eventually eradicate this virus is to see that number go to zero.
Investors who have followed this story are undoubtedly excited by this breakthrough, but, as my colleague David Williamson noted in a recent interview, it's important not to confuse a public health achievement with an opportunity. The lasting impact of this amazing discovery is the possibility of curing newborns and making strides toward the eradication of HIV.