Over the past several decades, the intensive AIDS research conducted by amfAR and similar organizations has completely transformed the landscape for people living with HIV/AIDS. As a result of the development of new drugs, diagnostics, and disease prevention technologies, countless people with HIV/AIDS around the world are living longer and better lives. But did you know that the benefits of AIDS research extend beyond the realm of HIV/AIDS? In fact, research aimed at preventing, diagnosing, and treating HIV/AIDS has given us important new insights into and treatments for a host of other diseases and conditions, ranging from cancer to severe vision loss. Read on to learn more about how AIDS research has helped other areas of medical inquiry.
Has AIDS research directly helped to cure other unrelated diseases?
According to amfAR, there are many instances in which diseases unrelated to HIV have been cured or put into remission using techniques directly resulting from AIDS research. One of the most dramatic examples is the 2012 case of a young girl with acute leukemia who was on the brink of death after failing to respond to conventional treatments. As a last resort, doctors gave the girl an experimental treatment in which an anti-cancer gene was delivered using disabled HIV as a carrier. The girl’s leukemia went into remission within weeks, and she remains cancer-free today. Another example concerns six children, all HIV-negative, with genetic immune disorders that are usually fatal. When targeted gene therapies employing inactivated HIV (similar to the treatment used for the young leukemia patient) were given to the children, their disorders were cured.
Are other infections or diseases treated with drugs specifically developed for HIV?
A number of therapies that were initially developed to treat HIV/AIDS have proven themselves to be invaluable tools for the treatment of other diseases. For example, some of the most important therapies for hepatitis B virus (HBV) infections are lamivudine, tenofovir, and entecavir: three drugs that were originally developed for HIV treatment. Interestingly, even when HIV drugs fail treat the disease, they can still have important alternative uses. The antiviral drug adefovir, for example, was not effective as an HIV treatment, but it has been approved to treat chronic HBV disease after it proved to be effective at suppressing HBV at very low dosages.
Can we expect AIDS research to lead to treatments for major diseases like Alzheimer’s or heart disease?
Certain major diseases, including Alzheimer’s and heart disease, have interesting similarities and links to HIV/AIDS. The connections mean that research into HIV/AIDS could yield important discoveries for these other diseases. For example, one of the earliest treatments developed for HIV/AIDS was protease inhibitors (proteases are a particular type of enzyme). Now, scientists are investigating whether these protease inhibitors could be effective in treating Alzheimer’s, as the characteristic plaques that form on the brain cells of someone with Alzheimer’s are caused, in part, by proteases. Likewise, heart attacks and strokes can be a problem for HIV-positive children and adults, as HIV appears to impact the small blood vessels of the heart and the brain. As AIDS researchers delve into this issue, they are therefore also advancing the cause of general heart-disease patients.
Does AIDS research help people with cancer?
AIDS research has been an important source of experimental treatments for several types of cancer. These include lung cancer (researchers are investigating the use of receptor-blocking drugs, originally developed for HIV patients, to target the CXCR4 receptor that plays an important role in lung cancer); cervical cancer (lopinavir, a protease inhibitor first developed to treat HIV, effectively attacks human papillomavirus, which is a frequent cause of cervical cancer); and leukemia (some of the drugs used to prevent devastating infections in immune-suppressed leukemia patients undergoing bone marrow transplants have come directly from HIV/AIDS research).
How have sophisticated HIV tests improved the diagnosis of other diseases?
To test for HIV, researchers have successfully developed the extraordinarily sensitive techniques known as polymerase chain reaction (PCR) and reverse transcription PCR (RT-PCR): these tests are able to locate a single particle of HIV genetic material among millions of other particles. Today, new PCR tests are used to rapidly and effectively detect many other infectious diseases including tuberculosis, hepatitis C, influenza, chlamydia, and Lyme disease. In addition, the extreme sensitivity of these techniques now allows previously undetectable levels of cancer cells to be measured in people who seem to have been cured. This ensures that new therapies can be initiated as needed and that ongoing treatments are not discontinued prematurely.
In what other ways has the work of organizations like amfAR helped people with other illnesses?
While the advocacy work of amfAR and similar organizations is geared toward people with HIV/AIDS, it has also had a considerable impact outside this sphere. For example, amfAR’s efforts in getting the Food and Drug Administration to implement fast-track review procedures for HIV/AIDS treatments has resulted in a much faster review process for treatments targeting all life-threatening diseases: not only AIDS, but diseases such as cancer and Alzheimer’s, as well.