UNC HIV prevention research named scientific breakthrough of the year

The HIV Prevention Trials Network 052 study, led by Myron S. Cohen, MD of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has been named the 2011 Breakthrough of the Year by the journal Science.

UNC HIV prevention research named scientific breakthrough of the year click to enlarge Myron S. Cohen, MD, led the study named "Breakthrough of the Year" by Science.

Media contacts: Lisa Chensvold, lisa_chensvold@med.unc.edu, (919) 843-5719 or Tom Hughes, tahughes@unch.unc.edu, (919) 966-6047

Thursday, Dec. 22, 2011

CHAPEL HILL, N.C. – The HIV Prevention Trials Network 052 study, led by Myron S. Cohen, MD of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, has been named the 2011 Breakthrough of the Year by the journal Science.

HPTN 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 study was funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health.

The complete list of top 10 scientific breakthroughs of the year was published online today.

The editors at Science, the flagship publication of 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. “This idea eventually became HPTN 052,” Cohen said.

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.

“Prevention of HIV-1 Infection with Early Antiretroviral Therapy” was published August 11, 2011 in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Jon Cohen, a writer for Science, said in an article about the breakthrough, “HPTN 052 has made imaginations race about the what-ifs like never before, spotlighting the scientifically probable rather than the possible.”

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.”

The research was conducted by the HIV Prevention Trials Network, which is funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases with additional funding from the National Institute on Drug Abuse and the National Institute of Mental Health, both part of the National Institutes of Health. Additional support was provided by the NIAID-funded Adult AIDS Clinical Trials Group.

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