Image Source: Charlie Sheen.

The life of a celebrity might look like the stuff that dreams are made of on the surface. Celebrities presumably make a lot of money, live lavish lifestyles, and would be expected to hob-nob with other important people on a regular basis.

But being in the spotlight all the time may not be as glorious as it appears. Celebrities are considered role models for people young and old, and their actions are closely scrutinized. Celebrities are also the subject of constant rumors, and they can essentially kiss their privacy goodbye.

Thus you can imagine the public shock earlier this month when 50-year-old actor Charlie Sheen, the star of Wall Street, announced that he was, in fact, HIV positive on the TODAY Show.

Charlie Sheen's shocking admission
According to Sheen he was diagnosed roughly four years ago with HIV, a virus that spreads throughout the body and attacks T-cells, the component of the immune system responsible for fighting off infections and disease. However, Sheen repeated during the interview that he doesn't know how he contracted HIV.

Sheen was coerced to come forward with his diagnosis for two reasons. First, extortion led Sheen to pay out millions of dollars to close friends who knew of his diagnosis. Sheen used the money to keep his diagnosis private, but was growing weary of using his bankroll to conceal his secret. Secondly, Sheen believed going public with his diagnosis would "help dispel the stigma of HIV," as TODAY put it.

In Sheen's words:

"I have a responsibility now to better myself and to help a lot of other people and hopefully with what we're doing today others will come forward and say, 'Thanks, Charlie.'"

Sheen went on to add:

"I'm not going to be the poster man for this, but I will not shun away from responsibilities and opportunities that drive me to helping others." 

The most important thing to take away from Sheen's admission
Sheen's stunning admission on the TODAY Show isn't the first time we've learned of a celebrity fighting, or pre-emptively fighting, a disease.

Angelina Jolie. Image source: Flickr user Richard Herbstreit.

In October 2013 Tom Hanks announced he was a type 2 diabetic on The Late Show, while in May of the same year Angelina Jolie revealed that she had undergone a preventative double mastectomy after discovering she was a carrier of the mutant BRCA 1/BRCA 2 gene, which entails a higher risk for women to develop breast or ovarian cancer. Jolie revealed earlier this year that her ovaries were removed as well. Having lost her mother at an early age, Jolie wanted to give herself the best possible chance of reducing her cancer risk so she could be around for her children for a long time to come.

But what makes Sheen's admission truly noteworthy is that it shines a light on the idea that an HIV diagnosis is no longer a death sentence. To be clear, this doesn't mean researchers have found a cure for HIV or AIDS. However, a lifetime of antiviral medication has been shown to significantly slow, or completely halt, the progression of the disease in many people. That's great news for the approximately 1.2 million Americans over the age of 13 currently living with HIV as of 2012, and the 35 million people worldwide that have HIV or AIDS according to the World Health Organization's 2013 statistics.

These companies are making a difference
A handful of companies in particular are really making a major impact in treating HIV/AIDS.

Image source: Gilead Sciences.

The first, Gilead Sciences (NASDAQ:GILD), might ring a bell. Gilead, which has never been a household name despite its enormous size, has found itself in the spotlight thanks to its two hepatitis C cures, Sovaldi and Harvoni, as well as their respective $1,000 and $1,125 per day wholesale costs. Yet before Gilead was ever a dominant force in hepatitis C, it was making enormous strides in treating HIV. First with Truvada, then Atripla, and now Stribild, Gilead is giving HIV-infected patients a good chance at living a long and normal life.

Stribild, Gilead's current HIV blockbuster, is a cocktail drug comprised of four in-house substances for treatment-naïve patients, and it marks a big change from Atripla, which contained three compounds from three separate drug developers (of which Gilead was one). In the clinical trials that led to its approval in 2012, 88% to 90% of HIV-positive patients taking Stribild had undetectable levels of HIV in the blood at the 48-week mark. This compared favorably to the 87% HIV clearance for Truvada and 84% for Atripla.

But its research doesn't end with Stribild. Earlier this month Gilead announced that its once-daily next-generation HIV therapy Genvoya was approved by the Food and Drug Administration for patients ages 12 and up. This new therapy contains a new form of tenofovir, distributing a lower dose of the drug throughout the bloodstream, but concentrating the therapy in higher doses within T-cells affected by the HIV virus. A 96-week phase 3 analysis released last month by Gilead showed targeted HIV levels in 86.6% of Genvoya patients and 85.2% in Stribild patients.

Image source: GlaxoSmithKline.

The other major player here is ViiV Healthcare, a drug developer owned by GlaxoSmithKline (NYSE:GSK), Pfizer (NYSE:PFE), and to a smaller extent Shionogi.

ViiV's two primary HIV therapies are Tivicay and Triumeq. Tivicay is designed to disrupt the replication process of the HIV strand, while Triumeq combines Tivicay with abacavir and lamivudine, two nucleoside analogue reverse transcriptase inhibitors. The description doesn't exactly roll off the tongue, but there's been little denying the effectiveness of either therapy.

With regards to Tivicay, an open-label phase 3b/4 study (a study commissioned following approval) showed that once-daily Tivicay led to virologic suppression in 90% of patients compared to just 83% for protease inhibitor Prezista. Another study, known as SINGLE, pitted Triumeq against Atripla in treatment-naïve patients over a 96-week timeframe. At the 96-week mark 80% of Triumeq patients had fewer than 50 copies per milliliter of HIV-1 RNA, compared to just 72% of patients taking Atripla.

Look for Gilead, GlaxoSmithKline, Pfizer, and Shionogi to continue to play major roles in limiting HIV going forward.

This is what #Winning looks like
For Sheen and millions of people around the world with HIV, it's uncertain what the future will hold. The trend has clearly demonstrated that new therapies are moving the needle closer to disease eradication, and what was once a death sentence seems to be far from it nowadays. With the battle far from over you can expect drug developers to continue to focus their efforts on this global killer. While that doesn't mean we have a cure as of yet, it does bode well for the discovery of a cure in the near future. This is truly what #Winning looks like.

Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.

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