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HIV epidemic & treatments: what’s going on?

Interview with Professor Giuseppe Pantaleo

With much of the world still grappling with the COVID-19 pandemic, it’s no surprise that other health crises haven’t been in the spotlight in recent months. But, as Professor Pantaleo explains, the HIV epidemic still deserves our attention.

We’ve come a long way since the first cases of HIV infection were discovered some 40 years ago. No longer a deadly disease, HIV is now a chronic viral infection that can be effectively controlled by therapy. Most importantly, those diagnosed with HIV can now expect a length and quality of life comparable to those who are not infected. But the devastation caused by the COVID-19 pandemic – at social, economic and medical levels – has drawn attention away from HIV, and awareness has plummeted to its lowest ebb.

While we do have antiviral treatments to help patients control their viral load, we’re not close to a cure yet. There are major scientific challenges to overcome, such as targeting latent HIV reservoirs – infected cells that aren’t actively producing new HIV but that can reactivate after antiviral therapy is stopped.

But as with all scientific challenges, this stumbling block is driving medical innovation. The most exciting approaches are using gene therapy and/or cell-based immunotherapy. Gene therapy seeks to make patients’ immune systems resistant to HIV infection, while cell-based immunotherapy is looking into engineering CAR-T cells – ‘immune cells’ – to target and purge HIV-infected cells.

All this makes the HIV field ripe for researchers starting out today. My advice to early career scientists is to be persistent, to learn to manage failure and – above all – to follow the science. By doing so, we’ve already sparked major discoveries in virology, immunology and drug development, ultimately transforming a deadly disease into a chronic viral condition associated with a normal life. With focused research and innovation, we will one day develop a cure.


Giuseppe Pantaleo, M.D., Professor of medicine, is Chief of the Service of Immunology and Allergy and Director of the Department of Laboratory Medicine and Pathology, at the Centre Hospitalier Universitaire Vaudois (CHUV), University of Lausanne, Switzerland. During the past twenty years, Professor Pantaleo’s research has been focused on the delineation of the immunopathogenesis of HIV infection. His research activities have been focused on human T cell cloning, human T cell phenotypic and functional analysis, T cell activation, differentiation and memory, immunopathogenesis of HIV infection, HIV distribution in different anatomic compartments, antiretroviral therapy, immune reconstitution after antiretroviral therapy, immune-based therapeutic strategies and vaccines.