When Eric Leonardos was diagnosed as HIV-positive at age 25, he was devastated. While he dealt with shame and frustration initially, he soon learned that his future looked optimistic.
“Thanks to the bold advances in science, I had the ability to rediscover what it’s like to enjoy life, and I have done just that,” Eric says. “To stay healthy, I take just one pill a day at lunchtime. That’s it. In fact, the virus is not even detectable in my body right now.”
The scientific community’s progress in treating HIV/AIDS looks similar to Eric’s story: a feeling of hopelessness at the beginning that today is full of optimism. In 1981, life expectancy for a patient with AIDS was measured in weeks and months. Today, a 20-year-old with HIV can expect to live to the age of 70. Few diseases have seen similar progress, and it’s somewhat astounding to see that in just over 30 years, HIV has gone from a death sentence to a chronic medical condition.
This progress would not be possible without the decades of work by biopharmaceutical researchers seeking to improve the outcomes of HIV patients. A few notable dates include:
- In 1987, the first milestone was reached, when researchers proved that nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs) slowed the progression of AIDS in advanced cases. Through additional testing, researchers realized that the drug also helped manage symptoms for children and people in the early stages of the disease.
- Almost 10 years later, in 1995, biopharmaceutical researchers hit another breakthrough: the discovery of protease inhibitors. These inhibitors halted the growth of the disease by preventing infected cells from duplicating and spreading the HIV virus. This discovery marked the beginning of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), which would revolutionize the fight against HIV/AIDS. Within a few short years, the death rate decreased by 67 percent.
This progress has continued through today. According to a 2017 Medicines in Development Report for HIV, there are 52 medicines and vaccines for HIV currently in development, either in clinical trials or awaiting review by the U.S. Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Among the treatments, there are 32 antiretrovirals and antivirals, 16 vaccines and four cell therapies, each of which holds the promise of better treatment for HIV patients and greater protection for the population at large.
On World AIDS Day, we mourn the loss of those who have passed away from AIDS and related complications, but we also celebrate the incredible achievements seen in treating the disease. With this sense of celebration, we look forward to what lies ahead, and what treatments have yet to be discovered.