UNC HIV research named ‘Breakthrough of the Year’

An HIV prevention research study led by UNC professor Myron S. Cohen, M.D., has been named the 2011 Breakthrough of the Year by the journal Science.

The study, HIV Prevention Trials Network 052, evaluated whether antiretroviral drugs can prevent sexual transmission of HIV among couples in which one partner has HIV and the other does not. The research found that early treatment with antiretroviral therapy reduced HIV transmission in couples by at least 96 percent.

The editors at Science, published by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, said in their announcement that “In combination with other promising clinical trials, the results have galvanized efforts to end the world’s AIDS epidemic in a way that would have been inconceivable even a year ago. ‘The goal of an AIDS-free generation is ambitious, but it is possible,’ U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton told scientists last month.”

The HPTN 052 study is proof of a concept more than 20 years in the making. “From the time the first AIDS drugs were developed in the mid-1990s, our UNC team of virologists, pharmacologists, and physicians has been working on the idea that antiretrovirals might make people less contagious,” said Cohen, who is Distinguished Professor of Medicine, Microbiology and Epidemiology at UNC. “By 2000, the UNC study team thought the idea was strong enough to try to prove it.”

It would be another five years before researchers from the HIV Prevention Trials Network started enrolling people in the study, eventually nearly 2000 couples at 13 sites in nine countries.

In May of this year, four years before the study’s scheduled completion, an outside monitoring board requested that the results be released immediately, because they were so overwhelmingly positive.

UNC-Chapel Hill Chancellor Holden Thorp said, “We’re proud that Science magazine has recognized Mike Cohen and his colleagues for such inspiring leadership in the global fight against AIDS. They are wonderful examples of how Carolina’s faculty conduct research that saves lives.”

Since their release, the study results have been reverberating throughout the policy community. U.S. and international organizations such as the World Health Organization, the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS, have incorporated or soon will incorporate “treatment as prevention”–the strategy proved by HPTN 052–into their policy guidelines for battling the AIDS epidemic.

“While I am obviously thrilled to have this research recognized as the Science breakthrough of the year,” Cohen said, “witnessing the translation of this scientific discovery on a global scale truly is the best reward.”

Related items:
Progress in AIDS battle, thanks to UNC study

Photo essay: UNC at the International AIDS Society Meeting, Rome

Blog post: A Remarkable Day in HIV Prevention Research: Report from Rome

Timeline of UNC AIDS Research

Published December 22, 2011.