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Top 10 hits of the 2012 AIDS conference | 

The 19th International AIDS Conference is over. This year’s conference marked a return to the United States after 22 years of boycott due to our government’s prohibition of HIV-infected visitors, a ban which was repealed by the Obama Administration in 2010.

The theme for AIDS 2012 was “Turning the Tide Together.” Here’s an arbitrary selection of the top 10 hits from the conference:

Flickr, Monica's Dad

1. Orchestrated enthusiasm. This AIDS conference was characterized by ambitious language and hopeful buzz phrases like “End of AIDS” or “Creating an AIDS-free generation.” The idea was to highlight the progress made so far and to promote an even bigger, bolder game plan. Bill Gates was among a minority of speakers and participants who thought it was a bit over-the-top to claim we are on the verge of “ending AIDS.”

Laurie Garrett took it a step further, asking in response to the end-of-AIDS cheerleaders: What are you smoking? Some organizers and experts defended the positive messaging as a necessary defense against growing complacency, cynicism and indifference to the pandemic — and as a boost to policy makers trying to push against cutbacks in spending onAIDS globally.

Tom Paulson

Timothy Brown, Berlin patient, at press conference during AIDS 2012

2. Curing AIDS. The story of Timothy Ray Brown, aka the Berlin Patient, has inspired scientists to explore the possibility of curing AIDS. Brown was cured of his HIV infection by a bone marrow transplant, a risky procedure he received to treat his leukemia and which was reported on Thursday at AIDS 2012 to have also possibly cured two other transplant patients.

Before anyone gets too excited, it’s worth noting that the idea of curing AIDS through bone marrow transplantation is not new. But enough new insights have been gained to make it worth investigating. I should note Seattle scientists are among those looking into this.

Gilead

3. Yes, Treatment really is Prevention. The idea that you can prevent the spread of AIDS by treating HIV-infected people earlier has gained new scientific evidence and perhaps momentum. Experts now recommend everyone with HIV should be on medication, to improve their health and to reduce the spread of HIV.

The FDA’s recent approval of the HIV treatment drug Truvada to prevent HIV infection in those at high risk (sex workers, the uninfected partner of someone with HIV) was another example of this shift toward seeing treatment as prevention. A new study in Uganda has challenged the claims that this always work, but most studies indicate treatment does prevent spreading HIV.

In any case, the shift has happened so there goes the old treatment-vs-prevention debate.

Flickr, TW Collins

4. Global access to AIDS drugs for the price of Boston’s Big Dig. Or what the military spends (spent?) on air-conditioning in Iraq and Afghanistan. About $22 billion. That’s the amount UNAIDS estimates would be needed to get anti-HIV drugs to the 7-9 million more HIV-infected people living in Africa and the developing world.

The good news is that sharp declines in drug prices mediated through distribution programs like the U.S. government’s PEPFAR program and the multilateral Global Fund to Fight AIDS, TB and Malaria, more than 8 million people have been put on these life-saving drugs.

The bad news is that almost as many still need these drugs and many rich nations have either flat-lined their funding for AIDS relief overseas or even cut funding. Here’s a good story by NPR’s Richard Knox exploring funding schemes. Continue reading

Seattle man cured of AIDS, aka ‘Berlin patient,’ steps into limelight | 

Tom Paulson

Timothy Brown, Berlin patient, at press conference during AIDS 2012

WASHINGTON, DC – The only person on the planet to have ever been cured of AIDS, former Seattle resident Timothy Ray Brown, has become sort of a poster boy of the International AIDS Conference.

Scientists have been emboldened by Brown’s case enough to be talking about the possibility of curing AIDS — once only a call heard by activists. The big AIDS confab this year is full of a lot of such talk, of big ambitions and ideas, but there’s nothing perhaps more ambitious than a cure.

“I’ve decided to become more public to dedicate my life, my story, to the search for a cure,” Brown said. “I want to just be the first of many people to be cured of AIDS.”

Brown, 46, once known only as the “Berlin Patient,” was cured of HIV infection by virtue of receiving a bone marrow transplant for leukemia in 2007.

The donor immune cells he received while living in Germany happened to contain two genetic mutations that block the AIDS virus from entering cells, thus ending HIV’s ability to do what it needs to do to survive.

“If it wasn’t for my doctor in Berlin who took a chance on an alternative therapy, I wouldn’t be standing here today,” Brown said. What he meant is that his physicians in Germany were willing to try something few American doctors would even consider — tweak an already risky and often very difficult procedure to make it a double whammy that attacks both cancer and AIDS. Continue reading