October 10, 2016
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‘Highly misleading’ headlines suggest impending cure for HIV

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Frederick Hecht, MD, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco, spent part of the morning of Oct. 3 fielding questions from patients at an HIV clinic who wanted to know when they could get the “HIV cure” they had read about online.

At least one of Hecht’s patients had seen a report in the British press declaring that scientists were close to a cure for HIV after the first patient to complete a trial of a new treatment showed no signs of the virus in his system.

In reality, while the research at the center of the reports may be meaningful, it is unlikely to yield a cure, experts said.

“The stories in the British press, unfortunately, did a disservice to the very important work that is going to get us closer to a cure of HIV,” Hecht told Infectious Disease News. “The headlines were highly misleading. When the false hopes they raise are not realized, this is likely to lead to disillusionment with the serious, concerted research effort that is going to get us closer to curing people who are already HIV infected.”

On Oct. 2, The Sunday Times of London published a headline saying scientists and doctors from five leading universities were “on the brink” of a cure for HIV. The Times’ story quoted a man who was the first to complete a treatment that includes using Zolinza (vorinostat, Merck) to activate dormant T cells. The man, who is receiving ART, said there was no detectable virus in his blood as of a few weeks ago.

Another paper, The Telegraph, published its own story based on The Times’ report with a headline saying: “HIV cure close after disease ‘vanishes’ from blood of British man.”

Both stories acknowledged that ART, and not the new treatment, may have led to HIV being undetectable in the man’s blood.

Paul A. Volberding, MD
Paul A. Volberding

ART, however, almost always leads to an undetectable level of HIV, said Paul A. Volberding, MD, Infectious Disease News Chief Medical Editor and director of the AIDS Research Institute at the University of California, San Francisco. And Hecht said almost every HIV patient in his clinic who is on ART has viral loads that are below detection.

Volberding called the reports preliminary and said there was no evidence the man in the story had been cured.

“It’s an unfortunate reminder that ‘news’ like this can generate far too much hope, which may not be appropriate given the limits of the science,” Volberding told Infectious Disease News.

Hecht wrote a letter to The Telegraph accusing the paper of “creating havoc” among patients and doctors and “playing with people’s lives and hopes.” He called the man’s test results “typical” for an HIV patient in treatment and said that while vorinostat has already been studied and may have modest effects, the treatment being used in the British study is unlikely to lead to an HIV cure.

Not only were the reports misleading, Hecht said, they were potentially dangerous given that they came from credible news sources.

The Telegraph softened its headline to say that an HIV cure was “possible” and the virus was “undetectable” in the man’s blood. A correction at the end of the story now reads: “As the article makes clear, the virus has become undetectable, but may still be present. Even if it proves to be fully eradicated, however, no resulting curative therapy for HIV and AIDS is imminent. We are happy to make this clear.”

The Sunday Times also changed its headline to note that scientists were “hopeful” for a cure. The story’s author, Jonathan Leake, The Sunday Times science and environment editor, said the original headline, written by a copy editor, was not appropriate for the story.

“We recognized quickly that our headline was excessive, and we were happy to change it,” Leake told Infectious Disease News. by Gerard Gallagher

Disclosures: Hecht reports no relevant financial disclosures. Leake works for The Sunday Times. Volberding chairs a data and safety monitoring board for Merck.