One Kenyan may soon place the country as the first nation whose citizen found a vaccine and a cure for HIV.
Prof Thumbi Ndung’u – head of Kwazulu Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV pathogenesis — has been studying the virus for 27 years, as well as tracking the scientific developments aimed at finding a cure and vaccine for Aids.
He noted that in 2013, at one of the world’s greatest scientists’ gathering called Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, a “Mississippi baby” was announced to have been cured of HIV. The baby was born to a positive mother who had not received any treatment during pregnancy.
Thirty hours after birth, doctors at University of Mississippi Medical Centre in USA began treating the infant. Even after the baby was taken off antiretroviral therapy after 18 months, the virus was invisible in her blood.
Then there was Visconti study in France, where scientists reported that 14 patients who had been placed on treatment immediately after they were diagnosed managed to live without ARVs and their viral loads undetectable.
Prof Ndung’u’s research, now at advanced levels, has employed this very strategy on women in Kwazulu, one of South Africa’s HIV high burden areas.
The results offer hope that a “functional cure” is possible when treatment starts as early as a few hours after the virus had been introduced to their bodies.
The soft-spoken 47-year-old presented his research findings at the HIV conference in Nairobi.
The women were put on three South Africa’s approved regimen, and an extra drug, and their viral load was suppressed that they would test negative when they went for testing thereafter.
Prof Ndung’u is the first scientist to clone HIV subtype C, the most prevalent in Sub-Saharan Africa that had been ignored by western scientists.
“Nearly all of what is known about HIV is about the subtype B which is in the west. Thankfully the medication works for more than one type of HIV. But to get a solution, we needed to know about this subtype”, he told the Nation.
While appreciating progress Kenya has made in halting HIV infections and deaths using methods such as condoms, anti-retroviral drugs and circumcision, he describes all these as “suboptimal”.
“Because of the complex social and behavioural factors involved, there is no guarantee that people will always use condoms or adhere to their treatment. We need a vaccine or cure”
However, like many other HIV products under research, his has not reached the last stage of research where the product is rolled out as public health strategy.
This is because drugs can suppress the HIV virus and even stop seroconversion– it not being visible in the blood during a standard HIV tests– but that does not mean the virus is not replicating in the body.
Prof Ndung’u showed that advanced lab tests in these patients would show traces of viral replication in the body, hidden and undetected, slowly destroying the immune system.
The virus has anatomical reservoirs–parts of the body such as the brain, the lymph nodes, the genital and gastrointestinal tract among other parts of the body–where it hides.
This could be an explanation why the virus rebounded in the “Mississippi baby” in 2014.
For this reason, Prof Ndung’u worries that the few brilliant scientists are just in “pockets of the continent” and not big enough an army to drive the invention for cure for the continent.
“The government should fund the training of more scientists, clinical and basic”, he said.
Prof Ndung’u went to Harvard in 1995 to pursue a doctorate degree on biological sciences in public health on a scholarship.
He had received his undergraduate degree in veterinary medicine at the University of Nairobi and working briefly as a veterinary surgeon and as a research assistant under the supervision of Prof George Kinoti and the late Jasper Mumo in vaccine development for bilharzia.