Two research studies have brought potentially life changing results to HIV positive people.

The first is a study at the University of Pennsylvania in which 12 people were given gene therapy to alter their cells in an attempt to make them immune to the virus. Doctors had already noticed that there are a very small number of people who have mutations in their genes which make it impossible for the HIV virus to infect them. To copy this, doctors took normal cells from a patient, gave them the mutation and infused them back into the patient body.

The 12 patients were taken off their normal HIV drugs to see if it worked; two were quickly put back on medication, because it wasn’t working out. As expected, the levels of virus went up quickly, but then went back down again as the new cells multiplied in the body.

Because there have been so many trial failures in the past, doctors are not calling this a cure – but Bruce Levine, who was one of the people running the trial, says, ‘We are absolutely encouraged by these results. This is potentially a new therapy’.

‘Cure is a four letter word. We don’t like to use it, particularly with HIV. We are looking at improving the health and immune function of people with HIV.’

The therapy isn’t without its drawbacks – the researchers reported 130 mild or moderate side effects, of which 32 were linked to the modified cells rather than the infusion procedure. The most common reactions were fever, chills, headaches, muscle and joint pain. One patient had to be taken to the hospital’s A&E after falling ill. The patients’ body odour also took on the smell of garlic.

HIV positive people on effective treatment can’t pass on the virus

Meanwhile, NAM reports from an HIV/Aids conference that researchers have been looking at the chances of people on effective HIV therapy passing on the virus to their HIV-negative partner and concluded the chances are ‘effectively zero’.

The study recruited over 1,000 people who were HIV positive who had an undetectable viral load and had unprotected sex with their uninfected partner at least some of the time. During the two years the study has been running so far, none of the people passed the virus on. The researchers estimate there were 16,400 occasions of sex in the gay men and 14,000 in the heterosexuals – so plenty of opportunity for the virus to transmit.

Previous studies have had results which show little chance of passing the virus on in the same circumstances, but were mostly carried out with heterosexual couples. Some 40% of the couples in the new study are same sex.

Condomless sex outside the relationship was much more common in the gay men – a third of the HIV-negative partners reported this, versus 3-4% of heterosexuals. No doubt because of this, sexually transmitted infections (STIs) were much more common in the gay couples, with 16% of gay men developing an STI (mainly gonorrhoea or syphilis) during the follow-up period versus 5% of the heterosexuals.

The study, which runs until 2017, is still recruiting gay male couples and, says NAM, ‘we need to be cautious about what it has proved.

‘It will probably never be possible to show with mathematical certainty that the risk of transmission from someone on successful HIV therapy is absolutely zero.’