I just wrote a short article for the Peace Corps Lesotho newsletter about a few major stories in the HIV/AIDS world from 2011. Thought it might be interesting to pass along:

The war against HIV has many battlefields: while we sit in our huts planning Life Skills lessons to empower young people, scientists tinker with cell membranes and researchers design ambitious trials. And since we just had to submit our Peace Corps Reporting, we thought it might be nice to check in on how those guys in lab coats are spending their time. So, in case you missed anything, here’s a very short Year in Review of 2011 HIV/AIDS news:

Closing in on a Cure?

Last year marked some major strides in researching a cure for HIV, with two patients in particular grabbing the science headlines. A man known as the “Berlin Patient” was technically cured from HIV and leukemia through complete bone marrow transplants. The procedure is obviously arduous, impractical and very expensive, but it was considered a huge breakthrough. The other man, the “Trenton Patient”, underwent gene therapy and was able to control the virus for a period without the help of any antiviral drugs. The connecting and exciting factor in both these cases deals with disabling the CCR5 protein on the CD-4 cell wall—the door through which HIV enters the cell. Even a small percentage of humans are born without any CCR5 proteins on their immune cells and are thus “naturally resistant” to HIV. The challenge scientists are now facing is to decipher a practical way of disabling CCR5 on a wide-scale, and last year’s protein success-stories may offer major clues.

African Contraceptive Risk

The most common contraceptive in Eastern and Southern Africa is a 3-month hormonal shot—it is quick, easy and doesn’t require a doctor. However, a new study reveals that the hormonal contraceptive can greatly increase women’s susceptibility to HIV/AIDS. The numbers show that women taking the shot double their risk of infection, or if already infected, are almost twice as likely to transmit the virus to their male partners.Researchers are trying to pinpoint the reason for the increased risk and suspect that the hormone shot may cause biological changes in sexual organs and fluids. These findings are troubling because cheap and easily administered contraceptives are critical for African women planning for children and a family. Until the results are better understood, policymakers are trapped in the middle ground between the worrying evidence and premature overreaction.

Scientific Breakthrough of the Year

“HIV Treatment as Prevention”, as the study has been nicknamed, has measured the effect of early ARV treatment in preventing transmission. Selected by Science Magazineas the “Breakthrough of the Year”,the study looked at over 1,700 heterosexual couples with one HIV-positive partner and found that when the infected partner began ARV treatment early on, the transmission rate dropped by a staggering 96%. This evidence poses big implications for possibly seeing ARVs as a form of prevention, rather than just treatment. Major players in the global epidemic including the World Health Organization, PEPFAR and UNAIDS are starting to integrate this breakthrough into their worldwide strategies.

Failed HIV Research

A vaginal gel that prevents HIV transmission but also allows pregnancy has been long sought, especially for women to protect themselves in situations when male partners refuse to use condoms. Unfortunately, a recent study on such a gel has been stopped midway through because of discouraging results early on. Of the 5,000 participants in Southern Africa, the women using the gel showed no statistical difference with the placebo group—new HIV infections occurred in 6% of each group. Although the results are disappointing, developing a successful gel is still a major aspiration, and experiments with others are underway.