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Experimental new HIV treatment may prevent infection

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Monkey studies may lead to HIV vaccine

Researchers say that they have developed an HIV treatment capable of blocking infection in monkeys for more than 40 weeks after being administered. The results, reported today in Nature, appear so promising that the researchers believe it may be able to work as an effective HIV vaccine. The research was led from the Scripps Research Institute.

The researchers are eager to begin human trials

The treatment works by injecting a subject with a harmless virus that prompts the body to create a protein of the researchers' design. That protein is then able to block parts of the virus that are used for latching onto cells, thus preventing it from spreading.

The treatment was tested on four rhesus monkeys. According to The Wall Street Journal, it was able to prevent the monkeys from being infected with SHIV — a version of HIV used in simian trials — even when they were exposed to 16 times the amount of virus that was needed to infect monkeys that hadn't received the treatment. Those levels are said to be far beyond what a human might encounter during HIV transmission.

"It’s very impressive, and the method is quite promising," Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, which supported the research, tells The New York Times. "But it’s still just in an animal model, so we’ll need to see evidence of whether it works in humans."

The researchers next plan to see if this treatment can be used to stop the virus from replicating in monkeys that have already been infected, the Times reports. If that's effective, they hope to move forward with human trials in three stages: first, testing the protein on its own in people who are HIV-positive; second, testing the protein with the viral delivery method; and third, giving the treatment to people at high risk of infection.

Though the researchers are hopeful, there are still a lot of unknowns: whether this will have the same effect in humans, how long a single treatment will work for, and whether it's capable of fighting off existing infections. The Journal reports that one researcher behind the study hopes that human trials can begin within a year and that additional animal trials have already been started.