December 23, 2009
There is no cure for AIDS. Although antiretroviral treatment can suppress HIV – the virus that causes AIDS – and can delay illness for many years, it cannot clear the virus completely. There is no confirmed case of a person getting rid of HIV infection. Sadly, this doesn’t stop countless quacks and con artists touting unproven, often dangerous “AIDS cures” to desperate people.It is easy to see why an HIV positive person might want to believe in an AIDS cure. Access to antiretroviral treatment is scarce in much of the world. When someone has a life-threatening illness they may clutch at anything to stay alive. And even when antiretroviral treatment is available, it is far from an easy solution. Drugs must be taken every day for the rest of a person’s life, often causing unpleasant side effects. A one-off cure to eradicate the virus once and for all is much more appealing.
Where’s the harm in fake AIDS cures?
Unproven AIDS cures have been around since the syndrome emerged in the early 1980s. In most cases, they have only served to worsen suffering. First of all, fake cures are a swindle. Someone who invests their savings in a worthless potion or an electrical zapper has less money to spend on real medicines and healthy food.Many peddlers of bogus cures insist their clients avoid all other treatments, including antiretroviral medicines. By the time a patient realizes the “cure” hasn’t worked, their prospects for successful antiretroviral treatment may well have diminished. Fake cures may also cause direct harm to health. Inventors often refuse to reveal their recipes. Some so-called cures have been found to contain industrial solvents, disinfectants and other poisons. The dangers posed by the virgin cleansing myth – which advocates sex with children as a cure for AIDS – are only too clear. Finally, the promotion of fake AIDS cures undermines HIV prevention. People who believe in a cure are less likely to fear becoming infected with HIV, and hence less likely to take precautions.
Why is it so difficult to cure AIDS?
Curing AIDS is generally taken to mean clearing the body of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. The virus replicates (makes new copies of itself) by inserting its genetic code into human cells, particularly a type known as CD4 cells. Usually the infected cells produce numerous HIV particles and die soon afterwards. Antiretroviral drugs interfere with this replication process, which is why the drugs are so effective at reducing the amount of HIV in a person’s body to extremely low levels. During treatment, the concentration of HIV in the blood often falls so low that it cannot be detected by the standard test, known as a viral load test.Unfortunately, not all infected cells behave the same way. Probably the most important problem is posed by “resting” CD4 cells. Once infected with HIV, these cells, instead of producing new copies of the virus, lie dormant for many years or even decades. Current therapies cannot remove HIV’s genetic material from these cells. Even if someone takes antiretroviral drugs for many years they will still have some HIV hiding in various parts of their body. Studies have found that if treatment is removed then HIV can re-establish itself by leaking out of these “viral reservoirs”. A cure for AIDS must somehow remove every single one of the infected cells.
Reputable research on curing AIDS
Activating resting immune cells
Many researchers believe the best hope for eradicating HIV infection lies in combining antiretroviral treatment with drugs that flush HIV from its hiding places. The idea is to force resting CD4 cells to become active, whereupon they will start producing new HIV particles. The activated cells should soon die or be destroyed by the immune system, and the antiretroviral medication should mop up the released HIV. Early attempts to employ this technique used interleukin-2 (also known as IL-2 or by the brand name Proleukin). This chemical messenger tells the body to create more CD4 cells and to activate resting cells. Researchers who gave interleukin-2 together with antiretroviral treatment discovered they could no longer find any infected resting CD4 cells. But interleukin-2 failed to clear all of the HIV; as soon as the patients stopped taking antiretroviral drugs the virus came back again.1 2There is a problem with creating a massive number of active CD4 cells: despite the antiretroviral drugs, HIV may manage to infect a few of these cells and replicate, thus keeping the infection alive. Scientists are now investigating chemicals that don’t activate all resting CD4 cells, but only the tiny minority that are infected with HIV. One such chemical is valproic acid, a drug already used to treat epilepsy and other conditions. In 2005 a group of researchers led by David Margolis caused a sensation when they reported that valproic acid, combined with antiretroviral treatment, had greatly reduced the number of HIV-infected resting CD4 cells in three of four patients. They concluded that: “This finding, though not definitive, suggests that new approaches will allow the cure of HIV in the future.”3Sadly, it seems such optimism was premature; more recent studies suggest that valproic acid has no long term benefits.4 5 In fact it’s quite possible that all related approaches are flawed because the virus has other hiding places besides resting CD4 cells. There is a lot about HIV that remains unknown.
Bone marrow transplants and gene therapy
In November 2008, a pair of German doctors made headlines by announcing they had cured a man of HIV infection by giving him a bone marrow transplant.6 The transplant - given as a treatment for leukemia - used cells from a donor with a rare genetic mutation known as Delta 32 that confers resistance to HIV infection. Twenty months after the procedure researchers reported they could find no trace of HIV in the recipient’s bone marrow, blood and other organ tissues. Other experts have said that more tests are required to verify this cure claim, though it is not the first of its kind. Of more than thirty HIV positive patients given bone marrow transplantation prior to 1996, two appeared to have been cured of their infection based on molecular testing and post-mortem biopsy samples. Even assuming it can be effective, bone marrow transplantation is too dangerous and costly for widespread use as a cure. Many patients die as a result of chemotherapy or reactions to the transplant, which is usually a last resort in treating life-threatening diseases. Nevertheless the German transplant does raise hope for related approaches. If scientists can find another way - such as gene therapy - to confer the same sort of protection against HIV as Delta 32 provides, then they may be able to stop the virus replicating. Research in this area is in its very early stages; it may be many years before a useful treatment is found, if at all.
Hope for the future
Some of the world’s top research institutions are today engaged in studies to learn more about the behavior of HIV, resting CD4 cells and other hiding places. But the truth is that this field does not receive a lot of funding. Some people think the search for a cure is not worth much investment because the task may well be impossible. Yet there are still those who remain hopeful, including the research charity amfAR, which in 2006 awarded nearly $1.5 million to AIDS cure researchers. Activist Martin Delaney is among those calling for an end to defeatism:“Far too many people with HIV, as well as their doctors, have accepted the notion that a cure is not likely. No one can be certain that a cure will be found. No one can predict the future. But one thing is certain: if we allow pessimism about a cure to dominate our thinking, we surely won’t get one… We must restore our belief in a cure and make it one of the central demands of our activism.”
How to spot fake AIDS cures and treatments
As already stated, there is no proven cure for AIDS. The best advice is to steer clear of anyone claiming otherwise. For those who find themselves tempted, here are a few pointers for spotting quack therapies.
Who makes the claims?
Try to find some information about the person or people promoting the product. What are their credentials? If someone claims to be a doctor then they should say what type of doctor, and where they got their qualifications.
What claims do they make?
Look at how the product is presented. Reputable scientists and doctors don’t use sensational terms such as “miracle breakthrough”. Also watch for evidence of poor scientific understanding; for example, no expert would refer to HIV as “the HIV virus” or “the AIDS virus”.It is very rare for a medicine to be 100% effective for all patients. It is highly implausible that a single product could cure a wide range of unrelated diseases such as cancer, asthma, AIDS and diabetes. A real scientist would be extremely wary of making such claims.
What’s in the cure?
Many inventors won’t reveal what goes into their so-called cures. Ask yourself why this might be. Could it be that their methods wouldn’t stand up to scientific scrutiny? It is important to remember that words like “natural” and “herbal” are no guarantee of safety. After all, hemlock and ricin (derived from castor beans) are both entirely natural and extremely toxic. As the U.S. Food and Drug Administration points out,“Any product – synthetic or natural – potent enough to work like a drug is going to be potent enough to cause side effects.”
What evidence do they offer?
To gain the approval of medical authorities, any new treatment must undergo very extensive testing. Countless products destroy HIV in the laboratory but are ineffective or dangerous when used by people. A proper trial involves a large group of volunteers divided randomly into two sets. One half uses the test product and the other receives a placebo (a harmless pretend medicine that looks like the real thing). During the trial, neither the scientists nor the volunteers should know who is getting which treatment. Afterwards, the results for the two groups are compared to see if the test product performed better than the placebo. Virtually all promoters of “AIDS cures” cannot provide any data from large-scale, randomized human trials. Instead they rely on anecdotes, personal testimonies, laboratory experiments or small-scale trials with no placebo comparison. This type of evidence is always unreliable.Personal testimonies are notoriously untrustworthy. Usually there is no way of knowing whether the people in question ever existed, let alone whether they were helped by the therapy. There have been cases of people being paid to pretend they’ve been cured. And even if a handful of people really did get better after they took the treatment, this doesn’t necessarily mean that it works; the improvements may just have been a coincidence. Many negative reports may have been left out of the promotional material.Proving that HIV has been eradicated isn’t easy. Changes in symptoms or weight gain are not sufficient, and neither is a viral load test. Even if the test can’t detect HIV in the bloodstream (perhaps because the person has been on antiretroviral therapy), this doesn’t mean the virus has been cleared from all parts of the body. Much more thorough investigation is needed.
Beware of conspiracy theorists
Many sellers of fake medicines fall back on conspiracy theories to explain why their products haven’t undergone proper testing. They say that government agencies and the medical profession seek to suppress alternative treatments to safeguard the profits of the pharmaceutical industry.This kind of allegation is a sure sign of a charlatan. In reality, leading scientists investigate all kinds of therapies that can’t be patented. For example, the U.S. government has funded research into using generic drugs (such as valproic acid) and human hormones (such as interleukin-2) as aids to ridding the body of HIV infection.
Do some research
Any important medical breakthrough will be reported in peer-reviewed journals such as Nature, Science or The Lancet. The mainstream media will pick up the story and leading experts will express their opinions.Simply typing the name of a supposed cure into an Internet search engine and reading some of the resulting web pages will quickly establish whether it has widespread support. It is also worth searching an online medical database such as PubMed for scientific studies and reviews.
Consult an expert
Always talk to a doctor or other health professional before trying any medical treatment. If you need more information or a second opinion, try contacting a reputable health organization or telephone helpline