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HIV research has provided insight into other illnesses

August 31, 2018

It’s not shocking that the millions of dollars poured into HIV/AIDS research over the past several decades has led to more knowledge, better medications and better treatment methods for these illnesses.

But what might be surprising is that all that money has helped researchers learn more about a variety of other illnesses ranging from heart disease to certain cancers, and about hepatitis and, potentially, flu and Zika viruses.

On Tuesday, the National Institutes of Health released a report showing that, since the first AIDS cases in the United States were reported 37 years ago, the NIH has invested more than $69 billion in “the understanding, treatment and prevention of HIV/AIDS,” according to the NIH release.

This not only means HIV/AIDS is not the death sentence it once was, but it has led to better understanding of the body’s immune system — specifically the role that the immune cells destroyed by HIV can play in thwarting other illnesses.

“Obviously, the extensive research done in the HIV area has led to (improved understanding) of different viruses, and of ways to attack these viruses,” said Dr. Goran Miljkovic, an infectious disease physician at Bridgeport Hospital.

About HIV/AIDS

HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, is the virus that causes AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. HIV destroys the white blood cells that battle infection, weakening the body’s immune system and putting patients at risk for serious infections. AIDS is the final stage of HIV infection, and not everyone with HIV develops AIDS.

The illness is often spread through unprotected sex with an infected person, but can also be spread through sharing needles during drug use or coming into contact with the blood of an infected person.

According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, between 1987 — the first year HIV was listed as a cause of death on death certificates — through 2015, 507,351 people died from causes related to HIV.

In Connecticut, the state Department of Public Health reports that since 1981, 21,543 HIV cases have been reported, and roughly 10,000 people in the state are living with the illness today.

Data show the number of new HIV cases nationwide has declined in recent years. The CDC reported that in 2015, there were an estimated 38,500 new HIV infections in the United States — down from 41,800 five years earlier.

While there is no cure, there are medications to fight HIV. Those with the illness can now live relatively long lives with regular antiretroviral therapy which can slow the damage caused by HIV.

Far-reaching impact

But the research focusing on the damage done by HIV/AIDS — and on possible therapies — has enlightened doctors about other illnesses. For instance, the inflammation that typically happens in HIV patients can lead to heightened risk of heart disease. The NIH said researching ways to combat the inflammation led doctors to learn more about the role of inflammation in heart patients who don’t have HIV.

Perhaps even more significant, efforts to develop drug therapies for HIV provided a model for drug development that eventually led to the discovery of other antiviral drugs such as those that can be used to cure hepatitis C infections.

That is huge, said Dr. Zane Saul, chief of infectious disease at Bridgeport Hospital.

“There’s definitely been a clear benefit when it comes to hepatitis C,” he said. “We’re not talking about treating — we’re talking about curing.”

Techniques used in the development of other HIV therapies also are being explored to combat other viral diseases, including Ebola, the mosquito-borne Zika virus and the flu.

Miljkovic said the far-reaching implications of the research into HIV isn’t shocking, but it is important.

“All of this knowledge is cumulative and is helpful (in learning more about) other viral illnesses,” he said.

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