Stopping—or even slowing—the AIDS pandemic has proven to be a difficult undertaking for more than three decades. But this year a team of researchers, including biostatisticians from the Hutchinson Center, made an advance with immediate lifesaving impact. The researchers showed drugs used to treat AIDS can prevent the spread of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
The HIV Prevention Trials Network study known as HPTN 052 was so profoundly significant, Science magazine chose it as the world’s scientific breakthrough of 2011.
More than 1,700 couples—one partner with HIV, the other without — participated in the study spanning nine countries on four continents. The results showed that the early use of antiretroviral drugs reduced HIV transmission to uninfected heterosexual partners by a stunning 96 percent.
Half of the HIV-positive participants were given antiretroviral drugs at the outset. The dramatic effectiveness of the drugs—a 20-fold reduction of HIV transmission to uninfected partners and a 41 percent decrease in serious HIV-related health problems for infected partners—settled a long debate over whether HIV treatment could do double-duty and cut transmission rates.
“The results have galvanized efforts to end the world’s AIDS epidemic in a way that would have been inconceivable even a year ago,” wrote Dr. Bruce Alberts, editor-in-chief of Science. “This is not to say that we can abandon the search for an AIDS vaccine. Nor will profound change come overnight from the promise of using treatment as prevention. But for its role in making success conceivable, we have chosen the results of this trial as our breakthrough of the year.”
Hutchinson Center biostatistician Dr. Ying Chen, the second author, and his colleagues in the Center’s Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division played a pivotal role in the study. They helped design, monitor and analyze the study and provided vital statistical support, processing more than a half million forms of study participant medical data.