Professor Sharon Lewin. Photo courtesy of Andrew Henshaw.
By Lydia Hales
In one of her final presentations as Co-Head of Burnet’s Centre for Biomedical Research, Professor Sharon Lewin spoke at this month’s Director’s Seminar about her latest research towards a cure for HIV and the challenges that still remain.
Professor Lewin said that current therapies have given the world great hope that one day we could end AIDS, but for every one patient who initiates antiretroviral therapy (ART), there is one new infection.
“Although a ‘sterilising’ cure is a tough ask for HIV, there is a lot more optimism for a functional or ‘working’ cure,” she said.
“If treatment is begun at the right stage, life expectancy for a person with HIV remains similar to that for a non-infected person. However if infection has progressed too far, their life expectancy is reduced and they are more likely to suffer from diseases of ageing such as liver or cardiovascular disease.”
Latent (or ‘sleeping’) infected T cells, which are difficult to eliminate, and areas of the body where these infected cells accumulate remain a major hurdle in finding a cure.
“But very early ART can limit the number of latently-infected cells. If begun immediately after HIV diagnosis, this therapy might be able to achieve a functional cure,” Professor Lewin said.
Activating latent infected cells to wake the persistent virus is another major focus.
She said eliminating latently-infected cells isn’t likely to be enough on its own, and will also require some form of immune support for the patient.
Burnet Director and CEO, Professor Brendan Crabb, who invited Professor Lewin to speak, said he had always admired her approach to science, in particularly her focus and reinvigoration of the potential for an HIV cure.
Professor Lewin will become the inaugural Director of the Doherty Institute, based at the University of Melbourne, later this year. She is also the Local Co-Chair of the 2014 International AIDS Conference in Melbourne from 20 to 25 July.