Gina Alvino, PhD, Senior Publications Assistant at PLOS Pathogens, reflects on recent media interest in HIV ‘functional cure’ studies.
The March 14th PLOS Pathogens paper entitled, “Post-Treatment HIV-1 Controllers with a Long-Term Virological Remission after the Interruption of Early Initiated Antiretroviral Therapy ANRS VISCONTI Study” received an extensive amount of global media coverage in the hours and days following its publication. The article, co-authored by Asier Sáez-Cirión and colleagues at France’s Pasteur Institute, reports on 14 HIV-infected adults from the 70-participant Viro-Immunological Sustained CONtrol after Treatment Interruption (VISCONTI) study, who have been characterized as post-treatment controllers (PTCs). These PTCs exhibited viral remission for several years following the discontinuation of combination antiretroviral therapy (cART), which is used to treat HIV infection. For these 14 individuals the virus was not completely eradicated, but still present at levels below detection in standard assays, which is considered to be a functional cure by scientists. These 14 individuals began cART within weeks of being diagnosed with primary HIV (“primary HIV”). The authors state that, “[T]hese findings argue in favor of early cART initiation and open up new therapeutic perspectives for HIV-1-infected patients.”
Immediately following the publication of this paper news stories from all over the world began to report on the findings. The coverage included articles in the New York Times, the Economist, BBC, CBC, The Guardian (Nigeria), Al Jazeera. Social media sites such as Twitter and Facebook were also abuzz with activity in response to the findings (as an example – here is one tweet: “At first a baby was “cured” of HIV, now 14 adults follow. Seems really early ART helps some individuals..”). It is important to emphasize that the PLOS Pathogens report does not represent a cure for AIDS, but it indicates that early initiation of cART treatment following HIV infection can sometimes be much more effective than waiting for disease symptoms to manifest.
The media frenzy was partially due to the fact that the paper was (coincidentally) published just days after an announcement was made at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections about a 2-year-old in Mississippi who was allegedly functionally cured of HIV. Many of the news articles, blog posts and tweets linked the Sáez-Cirión et al. paper with this announcement, which intensified the hype around the issue.
Clearly, the media frenzy had the benefit of increasing public interest – within a few days of publication, the research article had received over 19,000 views, significantly more than any other PLOS Pathogens publication has received in that span of time. It brought attention to potentially important advances in HIV research, and some articles accurately reflected the study in an easily digestible way for the non-expert reader. At the same time, while media-generated hype is nothing new, it can create problems when the public becomes confused and misled – especially in regards to serious infectious diseases such as HIV. In response to the hype that resulted from these two separate studies, a number of blog posts and analyses were written (though some focused solely on the announcement about the two-year-old in Mississippi), which serve as cautionary information for readers. While the issue of media hype is not likely to die down anytime soon, we encourage interested readers to access the original research.
Gina Alvino acknowledges Grant McFadden, Deputy Editor and Tom Hope, Section Editor of PLOS Pathogens for their editorial comments. The author and editors have declared that no competing interests exist.