Treating HIV patients with medication soon after they become infected may lead to a "functional cure" of the disease, French researchers have found.
The research published Thursday in the journal "PLoS Pathogens" follows a report earlier this month that a baby in Mississippi appeared to be cured of HIV after receiving aggressive antiretroviral drug treatment within 30 hours of birth, BBC News reported.
In the latest study, 14 French patients, aged from 34 to 66, were treated with antiretroviral drugs within 10 weeks of being diagnosed with the HIV infection.
About three years later, they stopped the drug treatment but scientists found they were able to keep the virus under control for an average of 7.5 years, without drugs, CTV News reported.
The lead researcher, Asier Saez-Cirion of the Institut Pasteur in Paris, told Reuters it was not clear how the patients in the study were continuing to fight the virus.
It was not clear whether all HIV patients could be treated in a similar way, Saez-Cirion said.
Christine Rouzioux, a professor at Paris Descartes University and a member of the team that identified HIV 30 years ago, told The Guardian a functional cure is when the virus is reduced to such low levels that it is kept at bay even without medication. The virus is still detectable in the body.
She said the research showed that with early detection and treatment, the number of infected cells circulating in the blood of these patients, who are known as "post-treatment controllers," kept falling even without medication for many years.
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Most of the 34 million people with HIV globally will have to take anti-AIDS drugs for the rest of their lives. While these drugs generally control the potentially fatal disease, they also have side-effects and are expensive.
Deborah Jack, the chief executive of the National AIDS Trust told the BBC it was "exciting times" in progress towards an HIV cure.
"This just underlines the importance of people being testing and diagnosed early. Currently half of people living with HIV in the UK are diagnosed late - indicating that they are likely to have been infected for five years."