While AIDS runs rampant worldwide, researchers at UW-Madison are working to find successful treatments, vaccines and other preventative measures.
Today, over 36 million people are living with HIV/AIDS; over 95 percent of these cases are in developing countries without the resources to treat the disease.
HIV, a sexually transmitted pathogen, affects the DNA of healthy immune cells by turning them into virus-replicating machines. The infection eventually paralyzes the immune system, leaving the patient susceptible to other opportunistic infections that ultimately lead to death.
David Watkins, professor of pathology at the Wisconsin Regional Primate Research Center, said that since the virus experiences a high rate of mutation, the only reasonable solution is finding a successful vaccination.
“The only hope of preventing this from infecting and causing untold suffering in tens of millions of people is to find a vaccine for it, so that’s what we’re doing,” Watkins said.
Previous research into an antibody vaccine has proven almost impossible.
UW is currently collaborating with several pharmaceutical companies such as GalaxoSmithKline and Merck to conduct preclinical vaccine trials. Watkins said Merck, one of the few companies investing enough money to develop a possible vaccine, has a very promising approach scientists will be testing at UW.
HIV researchers are also investigating promising new areas that have previously been ignored.
UW scientists are looking at a new HIV vaccine target involving the initial immune system response to killer T-cells within the first few weeks of infection.
By understanding how the massive attack of the virus works, it may be possible to apply the same principles to an effective vaccine.
“These results show that infected individuals do make immune responses that the virus cannot tolerate,” Watkins said. “The challenge will be to mimic these responses in an HIV vaccine.”
According to Dr. James Sosman, associate director of the HIV Care Program, UW also does a lot of applied work.
Researchers are conducting behavioral research to develop interventions that reduce the spread of infection, and are working on patient adherence to a very difficult medication routine.
With the relatively recent appearance of protease inhibitors, medications often referred to as “AIDS cocktails,” many infected patients are receiving help for their condition.
“We’ve only had these drugs for about five years, but in that time period we’ve been more successful than we would have guessed,” Sosman said. “Mortality rates have dropped tremendously in the United States. It’s dropped by at least two-thirds and probably even more.”
With such unexpected success, researchers are now able to start investigating some of the negative side effects HIV treatment may have on the body.
“We’re starting to see the concern about cardiovascular risk and longer-term complications, something we didn’t have the luxury to think about five years ago,” Sosman added.
The contributions UW makes toward the fight against HIV/AIDS are important on both local and national levels. With the combined efforts of many institutions, many scientists feel UW is stepping closer to finding a solution.
“It has to be a collaborative effort,” Watkins stated. “This virus is too big for any single researcher, and it has to be the result of collaboration with lots of people.”