New discoveries lead UT researchers to reconsider the effectiveness of HIV treatments

Vinesh Kovelamudi

UT researchers found the HIV virus is not as infectious after transmission as previous studies suggested.  

Postdoctoral researcher Steve Bellan and integrative biology professor Lauren Meyers co-authored a paper in which they concluded drugs that prevent the spread of HIV post-infection are more effective than methods focused on early diagnoses of the virus.

More than 1.2 million people in the U.S. are living with HIV, but almost one in seven infected people are unaware of their infection, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. 

There are two main stages to the disease, the first of which is known as the acute phase — a months-long phase of infection when levels of virus in the bloodstream spike. If left untreated, the acute phase is followed by a decade-long chronic phase of infection that precedes AIDS.

Bellan said many claim modern drugs used to prevent HIV are ineffective. These claims stem from the belief that the levels of infectivity, the ability of the virus to establish an infection, during the earliest phase of HIV infection — between the patient’s infection and the patient’s treatment — are significantly higher than the infectivity levels during other phases of the disease, according to Bellan.

Bellan said infectivity levels during the acute phase of infection are actually much lower than previous estimates.

“We found that people are less likely to spread HIV to others during this early stage than has been believed for many years,” Bellan said in a statement released by
the University.

In their paper, which was published in online journal PLOS Medicine last week with help from researchers from McMaster University and Yale University, Bellan and Meyers analyzed data from previous research that directly measured the infectivity levels during acute phase HIV among heterosexual couples in Rakai, Uganda. 

Meyers said the research proves that preventative drugs could reduce the spread of HIV.

“If newly infected people are not as infectious as previously believed, then we can be more optimistic about the global impact of HIV treatment as prevention efforts,” Meyers said.

Computer science freshman Daniel Mendoza said he believes preventative treatments are the first step to reducing the number of HIV cases.  

“Preventing the spread of the virus will help reduce the amount of people infected with HIV, which is one step in the right direction to eradicating the virus,” Mendoza said.