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Research into AIDS cure advancing but remains in ‘very early days’

HIV treatment and prevention getting ‘better and better’

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Carl W. Dieffenbach, Ph.D.

Editor’s note: This is part two of our interview with Carl Dieffenbach, director of the Division of AIDS at the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases. Click here to read part one.

Unlike the coronavirus, the AIDS virus’s ability to permanently infect the human body has made it more difficult to develop an AIDS vaccine, and research into a cure for HIV/AIDS is continuing to advance but remains in its “very early days,” according to Carl W. Dieffenbach, who has served for the past 25 years as director of the National Institutes of Health’s Division of AIDS.

But in an interview with the Washington Blade, Dieffenbach, who holds a doctorate degree in biophysics, said the already highly effective antiretroviral drug treatment for HIV is continuing to advance to a point where the current one pill per day regimen may soon be replaced by a single injection that will make HIV undetectable in the body and untransmitable for six months and possibly a full year.

He said the single injection advance would be applicable for both people who are HIV positive as well as for those who are HIV negative and are taking the current one pill per day prevention medication known as PrEP.

“One of the things I am most happy with is the whole U equals U movement – that undetectable equals untransmitable,” Dieffenbach said in referring to the current antiviral medication that makes HIV undetectable in the human body and prevents the virus from being transmitted to another person through sexual relations.

“That really is a rallying cry for people living with HIV that you can become fully suppressed and live knowing that there is no virus in your body as long as you take your pill, and you are free to love,” he told the Blade. “And that’s a wonderful thing.”

Although he didn’t say so directly, Dieffenbach made it clear that he and other government and private industry researchers working on an AIDS vaccine and an HIV/AIDS cure know that people with HIV can live a full and productive life as the push for a vaccine and cure continues.

Dieffenbach said a dramatic difference in the genetic makeup between the coronavirus and the AIDS virus is the reason why an AIDS vaccine has yet to be developed after more than 20 years of vaccine research while a COVID-19 vaccine was developed in a little more than a year.

“Once a person becomes HIV positive, that individual is HIV positive for life,” he said. “There is no going back. There is no spontaneous cure.” By contrast, Dieffenbach points out that with coronavirus, just five percent of those who become infected become seriously ill and are at risk of dying. He said between 35 percent and 40 percent of those infected with coronavirus are asymptomatic and often are unaware that they were infected.

“So, the human immune system by and large does a pretty good job of fighting off the coronavirus,” he said. That, among other factors, has made it possible to develop an effective COVID vaccine sooner than an AIDS vaccine, according to Dieffenbach.

Washington Blade: Where do things stand now in the progress of developing a cure for HIV and AIDS?

Carl Dieffenbach: So, let’s talk a moment about what we are doing in the space of trying to achieve a cure for HIV. Clearly, this is one of the two major research programs or research goals remaining in HIV – an effective and durable vaccine and then a cure that allows people to not take an antiretroviral [drug] and still live the ‘U’ equals ‘U’ [undetectable equals untransmitable] life.

What we want is a cure that really allows people to be free of HIV. And that can be achieved in two ways. You could see the HIV be eliminated or eradicated from the body. You would call that a sterilizing cure. And the other would be more of an immunological or other means of control that would suppress the virus similar to the way the antiretrovirals do, but it’s using the natural immunity, the induced immunity that the human body is capable of generating.

Up until recently there hadn’t been examples of an individual that had achieved that kind of cure. Just recently there was one reported. The big program we have in cure research is called the Martin Delany Collaboratories for Cure Research. And Marty was one of the lead activists in the very early days of HIV through the ‘90s. And he really pushed NIH very, very hard to not forget about a cure and to really focus on the best possible anti-virals.

He was just a strong leader and a really wonderful person who just pushed constantly the way you would hope the activist community would continue to try to drive improvements, even when things were going well. So, we felt it was a great way to honor Marty to name the program after him. This program has been around for a little over a decade and it gets more sophisticated and better every cycle.

And the two methods I mentioned – the ability to eliminate the virus completely and establish an immunologic or some other means of control – are major themes of these programs. It’s still in the very early days. There are limited clinical trials ongoing, but they’re very exploratory. There are maybe hints of things coming in the next couple of years. But it remains in the very early days. In some ways it’s similar to where we are with vaccines where we’ve had a little bit of success but nothing really that we then can say this is the vaccine for the future.

So, these two types of research – a vaccine and cure – remain our top research priorities. And we will continue at this until we have HIV vaccines and the abilities to cure, because we cannot really control and eliminate the epidemic without either of those two strategies.

Blade: Can you talk a little about the human trials that are going on now for a possible HIV cure being conducted by the Rockville-based company American Gene Technologies?

Dieffenbach: That’s right. One approach for achieving a cure are these gene-based strategies. There is a company that has a strategy for a gene-based treatment that they have been working on for a number of years. And that has been moving forward. And the proof will be in the pudding when we have a sufficient number of people in a way that are truly evaluated.

There are also strategies that look at ways of using what amounts to scissors, molecular scissors that can go in and chop out the virus. So, there are a number of strategies that people are using or considering for this idea of elimination of the reservoir, including the gene therapy method that we were just discussing.

Blade: The company conducting the gene therapy trials has said the treatment they hope will lead to a cure requires taking blood from someone, altering the genetic makeup of certain cells, and re-infusing the blood back into their body. Is that something that would be practical for treating a large number of people?

Dieffenbach: So, all of these gene therapy strategies are in the very experimental stage. They have to do something called ex-vivo transduction. That’s fancy words for saying what you just said. You take cells out of the human body, alter them by adding the new therapeutic and incorporate it into the cell, and re-infuse those cells back into the human body. So, first you start with one cell type like fully differentiated lymphocytes and then you move on.

The ultimate goal will be to get it so you can take a shot, where the shot would go in with the gene therapy and basically go into cells and immunize the cells in such a way that they provide protection from HIV infection as well as elimination of existing copies of HIV. So, we’re many steps away from that.

Blade: Some people may be asking why a COVID vaccine has been developed in just over a year since the worldwide COVID outbreak, but an HIV vaccine has not yet been developed after 20 or more years of research. Is there something different with the coronavirus as opposed to the HIV virus that might explain why we haven’t had an HIV vaccine at this time?

Dieffenbach: I think this is a really important point. And I want to talk about two different activities. One is the differences between the viruses themselves. With coronavirus, five percent of people who become infected with coronavirus actually get sick and get into a hospital and have near death experiences. Thirty-five to 40 percent of people who get infected with coronavirus are actually never aware that they were infected.

So, the human immune system by and large does a pretty good job of fighting off the coronavirus. But it is incredibly infectious. It is spread by aerosol. With HIV, it is transmitted sexually. It’s transmitted through blood and other bodily fluids. Once a person becomes HIV positive, that individual is HIV positive for life. There is no going back. There’s no spontaneous cure. We’ve had 70 million people around the world acquire HIV. By last count, there may be one person in all the years that may have spontaneously cleared their HIV infection. That took 12 years of that person’s life.

It is a rarity. So, from that perspective the type of immunity that you need to induce by a vaccine is so fundamentally different for coronavirus and for HIV. So, that’s the first step.

The second thing is why were we so successful with the coronavirus vaccine? It wasn’t dumb luck. Going back to the earliest SARS outbreak and through MERS and through other respiratory viruses the research team here at NIH has been looking at ways of building the better mouse trap, building a better immunogen. Take a part of the virus and make it the best it could be in terms of presenting or showing itself to the human immune system so that you get an incredibly robust quality response. And that was the work that was done at the VRC, the [NIH] Vaccine Research Center.

So, when that group first published their work on what we call this stabilized spike we offered that technology to all the vaccine manufacturers. And Moderna, Pfizer, and J&J all chose to use this modified version. AstraZeneca and Oxford chose different paths. The Chinese and the Russians chose a different path. And I think the quality of the vaccine and the effectiveness of the vaccine shows in part because of the genetic engineering that we have done to make it the best immunogenetic it can be.

So, it was a two-fold thing. We built a better vaccine to tackle a disease that really natural immunity can work well on. That’s one of the reasons why our vaccines – the Moderna, the Pfizer, and the J&J are still quite active against all these variants. It’s because their immune response was so robust. So, it was probably six to ten years of work that led us to that exact moment when SARS-CV2 came along that we know what to do with this. We were able to design a vaccine based on all that previous work within a very short period of time and start clinical trials within 60 days of identifying the coronavirus sequence. It wasn’t magic. It was hard work.

That’s a great story. There are so many unsung heroes in this. And it’s a great thing to be part of that we – NIH – could make it so it wasn’t just a proprietary thing for us. But we were able to give the world a way of making the best vaccine possible and to allow the companies to pick it up and run with it. So, again, at the end of the day the vaccines that I think we’ll come back to rely upon were made with this construct that was developed here through years of research.

Blade: Is there anything I did not ask you that is relevant to the HIV research?

Dieffenbach: Well, just to close the loop, so now that we learned all those lessons from the coronavirus vaccine, we’re going back to HIV vaccines and applying some of the rules and technologies and things that we’ve learned. Now we’re going back and looking at that more carefully and trying different things. And thinking about how we can build a better HIV vaccine based on what we know for a coronavirus vaccine.

So, we’re trying to complete the cycle. We started with HIV. We developed the platforms, applied it to coronavirus. And now we’re trying to close the loop.

Blade: You’ve been saying that these clinical trials for an AIDS vaccine have been going on for a while. Do you recall when the first AIDS vaccine trial started?

Dieffenbach: The very first trial for an AIDS vaccine was done in the ‘90s. And it didn’t work. It was a single protein. It induced antibodies. But the antibody did not react with the intact viruses. So, it failed. And that was the AIDS vax experience.

Blade: Do you remember when in the ‘90s that was?

Dieffenbach: The papers were finally published in 2003. So, the studies started in the late 90s and were completed in the early 2000s.

Blade: So, it appears that happened around the time the effective anti-retroviral drugs became available?

Dieffenbach: The highly active anti-retroviral therapy first made its debut in 1995. And that was a combination of AZT, 3TC, and either Crixivan, the protease inhibitor, or a different protease inhibitor from either La Roche or Abbott. And those drugs were quite effective in preventing the virus and helping people. But they all had tremendous side-effects as you will remember. And we then got better and better and better therapies where we are now at one pill once a day.

That is my background in this. I came from the drug side working with the companies back in the early ‘90s to bring those along. And I grew up in this field and then graduated to director of AIDS and then continued on to therapy and cure and vaccines ever since. I’ve been director since 2007.

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D.C. urges gay, bi men, trans women to get Monkeypox vaccination

Majority of local cases are men who have sex with men

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D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser on Monday urged gay and bi men and trans women to get vaccinated for Monkeypox. (Blade file photo by Michael Key)

D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser and the city’s Department of Health announced that beginning on Monday, June 27, a limited number of appointments can be made for monkeypox vaccinations and that gay and bisexual men and transgender women who have sex with men are urged to get vaccinated.

In a statement released on Monday, the mayor and health department said Monkeypox vaccinations offered by the city are free and available Tuesdays, Thursdays, and Sundays between 1-8 p.m. at the city’s health department facility at 7500 Georgia Ave., N.W. It says the appointments are for eligible D.C. residents and can be made at PreventMonkeypox.dc.gov.

“Monkeypox is a rare, but potentially serious viral illness that can be transmitted from person to person through direct contact with bodily fluids or monkeypox lesions/rash,” the statement from the mayor and DOH says, “Monkeypox can spread during intimate contact between people, including respiratory secretions during prolonged face-to-face contact, during intimate physical contact like sex, kissing, or hugging, as well as touching fabrics and objects during sex that were used by a person with monkeypox, such as bedding and towels,” the statement says.

According to the statement, the initial symptoms of monkeypox often include flu-like symptoms such as fever, headache, muscle aches and swollen lymph nodes, followed by a rash and skin lesions.

“Although the majority of cases do not require hospitalization, monkeypox is dangerous, highly contagious, and uncomfortable,” the statement says. “While monkeypox can spread to anyone, the majority of current cases in the District are in men who have sex with men,” it says.

The DOH and mayoral statement says that to be considered eligible for the monkeypox vaccination provided by the city, persons must be a D.C. resident, 18 years of age or older and must fall within these categories:

• Gay, bisexual, and other men 18 and older who have sex with men and have had multiple (more than one) sexual partners or any anonymous sexual partners in the last 14 days

• Transgender women or nonbinary persons assigned male at birth who have sex with men

• Sex workers (of any sexual orientation/gender)

• Staff (of any sexual orientation/gender) at establishments where sexual activity occurs (e.g., bathhouses, saunas, sex clubs).

The statement says upon arrival at the vaccination site, proof of D.C. residency will be required and could include an identification card with a D.C. address, a utility bill or other mail with the person’s name on it and a D.C. address, or a current D.C. lease or mortgage with the person’s name on it.

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Gay doctor elected AMA president-elect

Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld joined organization 22 years ago

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Dr. Jesse M. Ehrenfeld has been named president-elect of the American Medical Association (Photo courtesy of the American Medical Association)

Physicians and medical students have elected Wisconsin-based anesthesiologist Dr. Jesse Ehrenfeld as the first openly gay president-elect of the American Medical Association (AMA). 

Ehrenfeld was elected June 14 at the AMA House of Delegates’ annual meeting.

“Well, it’s certainly just an amazing feeling to know that you’ve got the confidence of your colleagues from such a broad array of practice types of modalities and perspectives,” Ehrenfeld told the Washington Blade during a telephone interview. “The association is a very diverse and increasingly diverse organization, and that’s a good thing. It’s more representative of the country and to see such broad support for a vision to move forward was really sort of heartening for me.”

The anesthesiologist and LGBTQ health expert will also serve as the first openly gay AMA president when he steps into the position later this month.

“When I joined the AMA 22 years ago, roughly, I didn’t think it was possible that a gay person could be the AMA president. And certainly 175 years ago, when the AMA was founded, that felt like something that wouldn’t have been possible,” Ehrenfeld said. “And so, to look at how the association, how medicine, health professional organizations have evolved, it’s pretty remarkable when you look at what that has looked like, and that’s a reflection of society in general. But certainly, you know, another pink ceiling has been shattered.”

Ehrenfeld previously served on the AMA’s Board of Trustee’s Executive Committee. He also worked on the AMA Recovery Plan for America’s Physicians; a long-term project that was unveiled at the annual meeting.

“A big component of that is helping physicians prepare the health system so that we can make sure that we can renew our commitment to achieving optimal health for all,” Ehrenfeld said. “To do that, we have to make sure that we prioritize the needs of physicians to improve patient care.”

Ehrenfeld is an associate dean and tenured professor of anesthesiology at the Medical College of Wisconsin and has advocated for issues affecting multiple marginalized communities, such as transgender representation in the military. He emphasized the importance of diversifying the medical field to ensure better service for patients.

“We need folks from every community but particularly marginalized communities to step forward and enter the profession. That’s how patients get better care,” Ehrenfeld said “There’s data that when we have a more diverse healthcare workforce, and when we’re a more diverse community, that those health disparities inequities, actually start to go away.”

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Take Pride in Your Health: Tips from a Primary Care Physician

Navigating health care can be daunting, especially for those who identify as LGBTQ+. Historically, the LGBTQ+ community has been marginalized and discriminated against, which has led to mistrust and unease for many who seek medical care. 

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Navigating health care can be daunting, especially for those who identify as LGBTQ+. Historically, the LGBTQ+ community has been marginalized and discriminated against, which has led to mistrust and unease for many who seek medical care. 

In Washington, DC, individuals identifying as LGBTQ+ comprise 9.8% of the population, a greater percentage than in any state. Individuals from this community are almost three times more likely to report poor quality of care and discrimination by healthcare providers. Nearly three in 10 of those who identify as transgender reported being refused healthcare because of their gender identity. Patients who identify as LGBTQ+ are less likely to seek preventive services such as cancer screenings and treatment for chronic conditions. And are more than two times more likely to delay getting care.

As we recognize Pride Month, I want to offer a few suggestions for finding healthcare providers committed to care equity and navigating the healthcare system so you can get the support you need to be healthy. Below are three tips to guide your care.

Find a doctor who’s an ally: The first important step is to find a doctor with whom you can speak honestly about your sexual health, gender identity, and health concerns. Look for a caring practitioner with special expertise in treating the LGBTQ+ population. Review the physician’s profile, looking for their level of interest and experience in treating the LGBTQ+ community. To get started with a new provider, I suggest scheduling a meet-and-greet appointment with a primary care provider to review your personal medical history, family history, specific concerns and health goals.  From there, you and your doctor can establish a health regimen that includes any necessary lab work, screenings, and office visits to best support your total health. Gender-affirming healthcare, if desired, should be discussed. 

Kaiser Permanente offers Pride Medical at Capitol Hill Medical Center, a welcoming, judgment-free, compassionate, and supportive medical practice devoted to meeting the unique health care needs of adult patients who identify as LGBTQ+. Kaiser Permanente’s gender-affirming care program, Gender Pathways, takes an innovative approach to providing care to transgender, nonbinary, and gender-expansive patients. Their services include behavioral health care, hormone replacement therapy, and gender-affirming surgeries. 

Know your risk factors: Understanding the unique health needs within the LBGTQ+ community is key to staying healthy. As people within the LGBTQ+ population face daily discrimination, some cope with these challenges by using tobacco and substances. In fact, there are higher rates of substance abuse for individuals who identify as LGBTQ+ than among heterosexual adults.Some populations within the LGBTQ+ community have a higher risk of sexually transmitted diseases, including HIV. The LGBTQ+ population also has a higher risk of developing certain cancers.To address your specific health risks and goals, your doctor can develop an individualized care plan that will include preventative screenings and routine appointments designed to identify and address problems early, leading to better health outcomes.Kaiser Permanente’s electronic medical record system proactively identifies the need for general health screenings and sends personalized reminders.

Manage your mental health: At Kaiser Permanente, we encourage preventive health measures to avoid developing health conditions like heart disease or cancer – and the same goes for mental health. Members of the LGBTQ+ group are more than twice as likely as cisgender heterosexual adults to have a mental health condition, such as depression or anxiety disorders. And, adults who identify as transgender are nearly four times as likely as cisgender adults to have a mental health condition. You can manage stress through exercise and using self-care digital apps, such as Calm or myStrength, free to Kaiser Permanente members. These tools can guide meditation and find support for building resilience, setting goals, and making minor changes to improve sleep, mood, and relationships. Prioritize frequent exercise, talking to someone you trust, journaling, and making time for self-care. As always, talk to your doctor if your mood or behavior changes affect your ability to participate in everyday activities.

You can become a self-advocate and receive the healthcare you need by establishing a rapport with a doctor you trust, knowing your specific health risks, and managing your mental health. Live a joyful, healthier life by seeking support from a primary care doctor and maintaining your routine screenings. Learn more about Pride Medical and LGBTQ+ care at Kaiser Permanente here. 

Dr. Keith Egan, a primary care physician at Kaiser Permanente and assistant medical director of Pride Medical at Capitol Hill.

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