A small number of patients stopped taking their AIDS drug cocktails and still managed to keep the virus under control, researchers say in one of the first studies to suggest that people with HIV may not have to be on medication for the rest of their lives.
The study involved just eight people, all of whom began taking potent AIDS drugs within six months of infection, before the virus had done too much damage.
But the findings offer hope that the immune system can be primed to battle the virus alone.
"At least in a select group of patients one can turn the tables so that the immune system has the upper hand rather than the virus having the upper hand over the immune system," said Dr. Bruce Walker, a co-author of the study and director of Partners AIDS Research Center at Massachusetts General Hospital.
The study was published in today's issue of the journal Nature.
Since potent drug cocktails containing protease inhibitors were introduced in 1996, researchers held out hope that some day patients would be able to get off the medication, which must be taken according to a strict and complicated schedule and can have toxic side effects.
But finding patients to test that strategy has been difficult and raises tricky ethical questions. Nobody could guarantee that the virus would not bounce back with a vengeance, newly resistant to the medication.
The eight patients had been taking AIDS drug combinations for periods ranging from one year to three.
Five of the eight remain off the drugs. One has been off the treatment for 11 months. Two chose to resume the regimen even though their viral levels remained relatively low. A third resumed the drugs because of a sharp increase.