Viruses and microRNA, and HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention in Malawi were the topics of the opening session last night at CROI, the world’s premier scientific conference on HIV.
“The epidemic at 30″ will the focus of the closing plenary on Wednesday in Boston, in the US.
Pre-prophylaxis exposure (PrEP) – in particular HIV-negative people taking tablets to avoid infection – drug resistance, novel antibodies and HIV’s interaction with TB, herpes and opportunistic infections also featured on the programme.
CROI is more focused on science, like immunology, virology and molecular research, than other popular HIV conferences like the biennial International AIDS meetings.
As the latest webcasts and podcasts show, the frontiers of laboratory science and therapeutic approaches are advancing and providing new insights into the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS.
But it’s difficult even to decipher the content of sessions, like those under the theme “New Findings and Controversies“, for non-scientists like myself.
At least the South African researchers attending CROI 2011 are likely to report on how these findings impact on their work at the 5th SA AIDS Conference, to be held from 7 to 10 June in Durban.
Today is the final day of AIDS Vaccine 2009 in Paris, an annual conference on HIV vaccine research, which started in the city of light in 2000.
Eminent HIV scientist Dr Anthony Fauci and Nobel prize winner, Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, will highlight the way forward at the closing ceremony before handing over to the 2010 chair, Dr Eric Hunter from the Emory Vaccine Center in the US.
Hunter is doing groundbreaking research on serodiscordant couples (one partner HIV positive, one partner HIV negative) in Zambia and Rwanda, focusing on how HIV is transmitted from one partner to the other. He presented findings from these studies yesterday and explained them to journalists.
His team found that about 20% of the couples they tested in Zambia were serodiscordant and about 12% of the couples tested in Rwanda.
He showed that 90% of the time the virus is transmitted from the infected parter to the other person only a single virus variation is passed on – even though person with the original infection (host) has a huge numbers of variants of the virus.
In other words, the host genetic diversity usually narrows down to a single HIV variation in the recipient, in what Hunter called a “genetic bottleneck during transmission”.
“For 20 days after infection the virus population is remarkably homogenous (67%) in the acutely infected person,” he said.
Dr Wayne Koff from the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative said: “This is an opportunity for vaccine development. If we attack the virus early it is not as variable as later.”
A single person who has been infected with HIV for six years has a greater variation of the virus than all the variations identified in the global flu epidemic in 1996, said Hunter.
Also explaining what happens in the genital mucosa during early infection, he said: “This is a narrow window at which the virus is most vulnerable. Once it is out (of the cervical mucosa), we can’t block infection.”