Quitting HIV treatment for the sake of science

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With a temporary therapy stop, researchers from Ghent University and UZ Gent want to examine a new route to cure HIV. The research, led by Professor Linos Vandekerckhove, is unique in the world and can count on global medical attention. The Ghent team collaborates with world experts from Seattle and Melbourne. An integral, integrated examination of the patient – a so-called total body mapping – will be linked to a drug withdrawal to detect where the virus is hiding in the body. This knowledge is crucial for the development of effective medications to cure HIV.

The virus can be suppressed with medication, but never disappears. It can hide in different places in the human body, but scientists have not been able to clearly map these locations.

In this study, a series of samples from a variety of body tissues (intestines, brains, lymph nodes, bone marrow …) of infected subjects will be examined to detect where the virus is hiding. The patients will be put under general anesthetic for this, to avoid unnecessary pain. Then the medication is quit, which allows the virus to reproduce. After some time the treatment is restarted and the virus is repressed again.

By temporarily quiting treatment, the researchers can see in which body parts the virus appears. Is this at random locations or always at the same location? The answer to that question determines whether HIV medication is necessary that treats the entire body, or rather specific body parts.

It goes without saying that the start-up of this study was not an easy decision, because a medical treatment can not be stopped easily. To reduce the risks to an absolute minimum, only patients who previously never had any problems and never have been ill are allowed in the trial. Participants are weekly checked twice, so that treatment, if necessary, can be restarted immediately. There is continuous medical and psychological support from a team of experts.