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  • Transmission of HIV from infants to women who breastfeed them.

    Posted on July 1st, 2012 admin No comments

    This title may surprise some.   In a paper (abstract, below) from a group at CDC I learned yet another HIV/AIDS related acronym.  It’s CBWT, Child-to-Breastfeeding-Woman Transmission.

    There have been several reports over many years of HIV infected infants born to mothers who were HIV uninfected.   These infections were noted as early as the late 1980s in the former Soviet Union, in Libya in 1998, in Kyrgyzstan, Kazakhstan, Romania as well as in Africa.   In every instance except in Africa, there cases were investigated with varying degrees of thoroughness.   The sources of infection were invariably associated with contaminated blood,   either from transfusions, or from procedures in unsafe healthcare settings, where for example sterilization of instruments is inadequate, or injection equipment is reused.

    The infections noted in infants that were investigated occurred as outbreaks and all were determined to be nosocomial.    Although infected infants born to uninfected mothers have been noted in Africa, remarkably, it appears that none have been investigated.

    It will probably remain for a future historian to understand why cases of HIV infection in infants, horizontally rather than vertically transmitted, have yet to be investigated in Africa.

    In those non-African outbreaks that were investigated transmission occurred through unsafe medical care, so what do we know of the safety of health care facilities in Africa ?

    Unfortunately unsafe health care remains a problem in many facilities in high prevalence areas in Africa.

    Taking Kenya as an example, Simon Colley has written in one of my blogs

    “Where does Kenya fit into this picture? As UNAIDS admit, there’s not much data. But there is a document called the Service Provision Assessment which looks at conditions in various kinds of health facility, such as hospitals, clinics and pharmacies.

    A few samples from this document may suffice to illustrate Kenya’s women capacity to prevent HIV transmission through unsafe injections and other healthcare practices: Between 10 and 15% of facilities don’t have adequate supplies of needles, syringes or latex gloves; between 55 and 70% don’t have running water or soap; many don’t have facilities for disposing of contaminated equipment or supplies of disinfectant; less than half have guidelines for infection prevention and less than 10% have guidelines for sterilization.

    Although this document dates from 2004, we don’t know if there has been any change

    There’s little doubt that unsafe health care is still a problem in Kenya and other high HIV prevalence countries. What’s not clear is how big a problem it is. Because, despite admitting that they don’t have the sort of data on unsafe health care that would allow an estimate to be made, UNAIDS and the WHO have failed to investigate or to carry out the research required”

    This is a table taken from the Service Provision Assessment  that speaks for itself.

    .

    As the title of this post indicates, infants infected either vertically or through exposure to contaminated blood are able to transmit HIV to seronegative women who breast feed them.

    Mother to child transmission is the leading cause of HIV infection in infants. Some of these infected infants will be orphans and so place seronegative women who breastfeed them at risk.  Wet-nursing is the complete nursing of another woman’s infant and still occurs as does cross-nursing which is the nursing of another infant by a woman  while still nursing her own child.  Estimates of the prevalence of these practices vary by region and the overall prevalence is not known.

    Worldwide the greatest risk for CBWT is carried by seronegative mothers whose infants become infected through exposure to contaminated blood.  Rates of CBWT were as high as 40-60% among mothers  breastfeeding infants who became infected after birth.

    This report on CBWT highlights the importance of unsafe health care facilities in the transmission of HIV.   Of course HIV is not the only pathogen that can be transmitted in such settings.

    Why so few resources have been devoted to the improvement of health care facilities in developing nations is puzzling.  Could it be that like the provision of clean water and sanitation, improving health care facilities is not something that can generate much profit?

    Perhaps it will be left to HIV activists who have successfully drawn public attention to other neglected issues, to alert funders and policy makers to the dangerous condition of many healthcare facilities in the developing world.

    The benefits of improving infection control in these facilities extend far beyond effects in HIV transmission.

    A group of individuals have been trying to bring attention to this issue for many years and I do recommend looking at the website they have created to directly alert people in Africa to dangers in health care facilities with no or poor infection control procedures.

    (1)

    A Review of Evidence for Transmission of Human Immunodeficiency Virus from Children to Breastfeeding Women and Implications for Prevention.

    Kirsten M Little, Peter Kilmarx, Allan Taylor, Charles Rose, Emilia Rivadeneira. And Steven Nesheim.

    The Pediatric Infectious Disease Journal Publish ahead of print.

    DOI:10.1097/INF.0b013e318261130f

    Abstract

    Background: Child-to-Breastfeeding-Woman Transmission (CBWT) of HIV occurs when an HIV-infected infant transmits the virus to an HIV-uninfected woman through breastfeeding. Transmission likely occurs as a result of breastfeeding contact during a period of epithelial disruption, such as maternal skin fissures and/or infant stomatitis. Despite extensive epidemiologic and phylogenetic evidence, however, CBWT of HIV continues to be overlooked.

    Objective: This paper summarizes the available evidence for CBWT from nosocomial outbreaks, during which nosocomially HIV-infected infants transmitted the virus to their mothers through breastfeeding. This paper also explores the CBWT risk associated with HIV-infected orphans and their female caretakers, and the lack of guidance regarding CBWT prevention in infant feeding recommendations.

    Methods: We searched online databases including PubMed and ScienceDirect for English language articles published from January 1975 to January 2011 using the search terms “HIV”, “perinatal”, “child-to-mother”, and “breastfeeding”. The citations from all selected articles were reviewed for additional studies.

    Results: We identified five studies documenting cases of CBWT. Two studies contained data on the number of HIV-infected women, as well as the proportion breastfeeding. Rates of CBWT ranged from 40 – 60% among women reporting breastfeeding after their infants were infected.

    Conclusions: Poor infection control practices, especially in areas of high HIV prevalence, have resulted in pediatric HIV infections and put breastfeeding women at risk for CBWT. Current infant feeding guidelines and HIV prevention messages do not address CBWT, and fail to provide strategies to help women reduce their risk of acquiring HIV during breastfeeding.

  • Treatment as Prevention: Protecting Individual Autonomy

    Posted on June 5th, 2011 admin No comments

    Treatment as Prevention

    Protecting patient autonomy

    Patient autonomy is just a particular instance of individual autonomy, a term that may sound pretty dry and academic but if we used the term individual freedom we would essentially be talking about the same thing.

    Respect for the autonomy of the individual may be the most important of the principles that form the foundation of medical ethics. (1)

    One attribute of personal autonomy is: “the capacity to be one’s own person, to live one’s life according to reasons and motives that are taken as one’s own and not the product of manipulative or distorting external forces.” (2)

    There is no disagreement about the importance of respect for individual autonomy but as I’ll explain, it seems that its pre-eminence is being questioned in some proposals to use antiretroviral treatment to prevent transmission of HIV.

    The recent demonstration that antiretroviral treatment can prevent transmission of HIV among serodiscordant heterosexual couples is great news. However, when the person offered treatment has not yet been shown to personally benefit from it, an ethical issue needs to be addressed. It has not yet been reliably demonstrated that for people with greater than 350 CD4 lymphocytes, starting treatment immediately rather than deferring it confers a net benefit; indeed, it may even prove to be harmful. A randomized controlled trial now enrolling will provide needed information, but we will have to wait several years for its results.

    The issue isn’t whether or not people with greater than 350 CD4 lymphocytes should receive treatment. A respect for their autonomy requires that the decision whether or not to do so is made by them and is made free from coercion.

    A recent issue of the Journal, Public Health Ethics (3) is devoted to ethical issues associated with the proposal that a program of universal testing and treatment of infected individuals could bring an end to the HIV/AIDS epidemic. Such a proposal would involve the treatment of healthier HIV infected individuals not at this time known to personally benefit from antiviral medications which could even harm them.

    In an article in the journal referred to above, public health ethics is said to require an approach where respect for individual autonomy is not paramount; a commitment to the supremacy of individual autonomy could have no place where the “primacy of collective wellbeing is the starting point”.

    In that case I wonder just how desirable a collective wellbeing would be where individual rights were subservient to whatever was defined as the collective good.

    I can only hope that this goes nowhere, as abandoning the pre-eminence of respect for individual autonomy opens the door to tyranny, paternalistic or otherwise. Individual freedoms have been hard won, and we should always be aware of harms that have been perpetrated in the name of the public good, even leaving alone the problem of who defines what constitutes the public good.

    In public health, medical research and medical practice, concern for individual autonomy remains paramount. The only commonly agreed acceptable exemption is the restriction of personal freedoms to prevent harm to others such as limiting the movement of individuals with highly communicable diseases where the harm that may be done to others is considerable. That is, outside the criminal justice system, among individuals who are free.

    People have the right to make decisions about their treatment, their participation in a research study, or in a public health intervention, free from coercion.

    Providing misleading information is a form of coercion; withholding information may also be coercive.

    Providers of health care have an obligation to provide patients with honest information to inform their decisions. This must include information about what is known about the risks and benefits of treatment, as well as what remains conjectural.

    Information and the strength of the evidence upon which it rests:

    It’s not enough to simply provide individuals with information concerning the benefits and risks of a particular treatment. In order for the information to be useful we must also indicate the strength of the evidence on which the information rests. (4)

    The most reliable evidence regarding the effects of a particular treatment is provided by results of randomized controlled clinical trials. This is because the treatment in question has been put to the test in a protocol that minimizes bias; we can therefore have a greater degree of confidence that effects observed are in fact caused by the treatment.

    Unfortunately information derived from randomized controlled trials is often unavailable. The clinical trial may not yet have been completed, or for whatever reasons the trial cannot be undertaken.

    When this is the case we have to consider evidence of inferior quality, for example, evidence derived from reviews of patient records or observational studies, and the opinion of experts.

    Observational studies are beset with interpretative difficulties because subjects are not randomly assigned to receive one or another kind of intervention. The particular reasons why participants were selected for study may influence the outcome rather than the effects of the intervention.

    Expert opinion:

    In all the systems I have seen that grade the quality of different kinds of evidence, expert opinion is at the bottom of the list. But expert opinion can be valuable to an individual in coming to a treatment decision when evidence of the highest quality is not available.

    Respect for patient autonomy means that patients make their own decisions free from coercion. As noted, supplying misleading information is a form of coercion. To state that something is known to be the case, when it is only an opinion is misleading.

    HPTN 052

    HPTN 052 is the study which demonstrated the efficacy of antiretroviral treatment in preventing transmission of HIV among serodiscordant heterosexual couples. Although the result was not unexpected it is nonetheless significant because it was obtained from a randomized controlled clinical trial.

    We now know that the uninfected partners of individuals with greater than 350 CD4 lymphocytes will benefit from treatment of the HIV positive partner. At this time we can only have an opinion about whether starting treatment immediately or deferring it will benefit or harm the infected partner with greater than 350 CD4s or be without effect – apart from cost.

    Most of the jubilant reports of the results of HPTN 052 do not mention the problem facing the healthier HIV positive partner in coming to a decision. Do the commentators just assume that it’s been established that all infected individuals receive a net benefit from treatment irrespective of CD4 numbers? Or do they not believe it to be important that patients make their own decisions regarding their treatment?

    I wish I could say I was startled to read in one newsletter that “For treatment as prevention to work….. people need to be convinced that early treatment is in their interest.”

    Convincing people to take a possibly perilous course of action based merely on opinion and evidence of inferior quality is a step on a road that ends with enforcement.

    A respect for individual autonomy means that we respect the right of individuals to make decisions on their own behalf, free from even subtle coercion. Our obligation as providers of health care information is to not only provide information, but also an indication of the quality of the evidence supporting it.

    At this time we do not know that individuals with greater than 350 CD4 lymphocytes receive a net benefit from antiviral treatment. There is evidence that they may, but until this is put to the test in a randomized controlled trial such as START, we must not mislead them by trying to convince them that “early treatment is in their interest”.

    Given adequate information, a person with greater than 500 CD4 lymphocytes may reasonably decide to take antiretroviral drugs to lessen the risk of infecting a partner even knowing that there may be no personal benefit or that there is a possibility of harm.

    At the end of the day what’s of central importance is that we respect our patient’s right to make choices about his or her treatment, and provide honest information to inform that choice, recognizing the difference between expert opinion and established fact.

    (1) Ever since Beauchamp and Childress published the first edition of their classic text, Principles of Biomedical Ethics, in 1979 it’s been commonly accepted that beneficence, nonmaleficence, justice and respect for autonomy, are four principles that should guide medical ethics.

    The Four Principles are general guides:

    Respect for autonomy: respecting the decision-making capacities of autonomous persons; enabling individuals to make reasoned informed choices.

    Beneficence: this considers the balancing of benefits of treatment against the risks and costs; the healthcare professional should act in a way that benefits the patient

    Non maleficence: avoiding the causation of harm; the healthcare professional should not harm the patient. All treatment involves some harm, even if minimal, but the harm should not be disproportionate to the benefits of treatment.

    Justice: distributing benefits, risks and costs fairly; the notion that patients in similar positions should be treated in a similar manner.

    Beauchamp and Childress; Principles Biomedical Ethics, OUP, 5th edition

    (2) Christman, J, 2001″Autonomy in Moral and Political Philosophy”, The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy (Fall 2007 Edition) , Edward N. Zalta (ed.), URL = <http://plato.stanford.edu/archives/fall2007/entries/autonomy-moral/>.

    (3) http://phe.oxfordjournals.org/content/3/3.toc

    (4) Several systems have been devised to grade the quality of evidence.For example: http://www.cebm.net/index.aspx?o=1025 The GRADE working group has been working on assessing the quality of evidence since 2000. http://www.gradeworkinggroup.org/index.htm

  • Interferon in AIDS: Too Much of a Good Thing

    Posted on May 12th, 2011 admin No comments

    Interferon and AIDS:  Too much of a good thing

    This discovery of interferon in AIDS

    AIDS was first recognized in 1981.  Interferon was found in the blood streams of people with AIDS later that same year, making it one of the earliest of the significant AIDS associated immunologic abnormalities to be noted.    Large amounts of interferon were found that were present for very prolonged periods, a situation noted before only in auto-immune diseases like lupus.

    The interesting story of how interferon came to be discovered in people with AIDS so early in the epidemic illustrates at least one way in which science can progress;  it also demonstrates a way in which scientific progress can be retarded.

    The production of interferon following viral infections is part of the innate immune response that is the immediate first line of defence against viral infections.   Interferon has potent antiviral activity against a broad range of viruses.  It also has widespread effects on the immune system as well as effects on other organ systems.  Some of these effects are harmful if prolonged, so there are mechanisms for turning off the interferon response after a few days as other antiviral mechanisms come into play.

    HIV and disease causing SIV infections differ from most viral infections in that the production of interferon is not turned off; it continues to be produced, sometimes at very high levels.  The prolonged presence of interferon contributes to the disease process and is a factor in the loss of CD 4 cells.

    The sustained activation of both innate and adaptive immune responses is now understood to be at the heart of AIDS pathogenesis.

    Interferon continues to be produced, sometimes in large amounts, in HIV infected individuals.  In untreated HIV disease we have the unusual situation where increasing amounts of interferon are associated with increased HIV replication.

    Interferon can’t be exerting much of an antiviral effect in HIV infected individuals, but this did not deter investigators from injecting yet more of it into people with AIDS early in the epidemic.

    This is even more puzzling as by 1983 we had evidence that interferon was able to suppress CD4 lymphocyte proliferation.  Long before this we knew that treatment with interferon was associated with low white blood cell counts, and a low white blood count is characteristic of advance HIV disease.

    But if interferon was of no use against HIV it has been spectacularly successful against Hepatitis C, curing many people of this infection.  It also may still have a place in treating some people whose Kaposi’s sarcoma is unresponsive to antiretroviral drugs, possibly through its ability to inhibit angiogenesis, which is the process of new blood vessel growth.

    Although there were lots of reasons to consider that prolonged exposure to high levels of interferon might have something to do with this newly recognized illness even in 1981, serious work on this possibility was delayed for many years.  The zeal to administer yet more interferon to treat AIDS is surely part of the reason for this neglect.

    The inexplicable enthusiasm to treat AIDS with interferon resulted in no benefit to patients; it probably accelerated the disease process in some.

    It also had the unfortunate effect of delaying research into interferon’s role in the pathogenesis of HIV disease.

    It’s only in the past ten years that we have gained some information on how prolonged exposure to interferon can contribute to the loss of CD 4 lymphocytes.

    Finding interferon in people with AIDS

    This is how we came to find interferon in people with AIDS so early in the epidemic.

    Early in 1981 I had referred one of my patients to Dr Joyce Wallace.  A biopsy taken of lesions seen in his stomach indicated that these were Kaposi’s sarcoma.   Joyce called to tell me that she had contacted the National Cancer Institute to help identify experts in New York City who were familiar with Kaposi’s sarcoma  because this was the first time she was confronted with this diagnosis (the first time for me as well).   She had been told that over twenty gay men had been diagnosed with Kaposi’s sarcoma and that Dr Alvin Friedman Kien at NYU was treating a number of them.  I knew Alvin through my association with Jan Vilcek, a long-time colleague in the field of interferon research.  Alvin is a dermatologist but also worked in the NYU lab that Jan headed.

    I immediately called Jan who confirmed that Alvin was treating a number of gay men with Kaposi’s sarcoma. Jan very kindly allowed me to work in his lab.  I then arranged my time so that I worked in the virology lab in the mornings and saw my patients in the afternoon.

    I was one of several scientists who thought it likely that cytomegalovirus (CMV) played a role in this newly recognized disease so initially my lab work centered on this virus.

    In the early months of the epidemic Alvin had sent blood samples to Pablo Rubenstein at the New York blood center for HLA typing.   HLA refers to the human leukocyte antigen system which allows the immune system to differentiate foreign antigens from self-antigens. It’s important in organ transplantation, where a match in HLA antigens between recipient and donor can prevent organ rejection.

    HLA typing is important in investigating a newly recognized disease as there is an association of certain HLA types with some diseases, even some infectious diseases.

    A serologic method was then used for HLA typing.  It depended on the attachment of HLA specific antibodies to HLA antigens on the surface of leukocytes.

    HLA typing of our first patients with Kaposi’s sarcoma proved to be difficult because the patient’s own antibodies were already coating the   surface of their leukocytes, interfering with the test.

    At the same time I had come across a preprint of a paper reporting an important observation by Jan Vilcek.  The CD3 antigen is present on the surface of T cells.  Jan had reported that an antibody against the CD3 antigen was a powerful inducer of gamma interferon.

    As I read this report it occurred to me that Pablo Rubenstein’s observation that antibodies were attached to our patient’s leukocytes could mean that these blood cells were secreting gamma interferon, which we might be able to detect in their sera.

    I discussed this possibility with Jan and Alvin and we immediately set out to test the sera of Alvin’s patients.  This idea was to bear fruit, but not what we had expected.    Rather than gamma interferon, large amounts of alpha interferon were found.

    Jan Vilcek has also described this event, which can be seen by clicking here.

    Maybe what’s important is to have a reasonable idea that can be tested, not that the idea need be correct.  In fact much later, using more sensitive tests gamma interferon was eventually found in AIDS sera.

    Robert Friedman is a colleague from the early days of interferon research, with whom I had published work on the mechanism of interferon’s antiviral action.  He was – and still is ,chairman of the pathology department at the Uniformed Services University of the Health Sciences in Bethesda.  He, Jan and I have been colleagues since the 1960s when Alick Isaacs, a discoverer of interferon was still alive.   We joined forces to study the association of interferon with AIDS.

    Our extended findings including data obtained at both Jan Vilcek’s and Bob Friedman’s lab was published in the Journal of Infectious diseases in 1982.

    Since there were so many names, it was left to me to decide their order, and I chose that they be listed alphabetically. Thus Gene DeStefano became lead author. He was a technician in Jan’s lab and I believe he went on to become a dentist.  This is the title.

    Acid-Labile Human Leukocyte Interferon in Homosexual Men with Kaposi’s Sarcoma and Lymphadenopathy

    E. DeStefanoR. M. FriedmanA. E. Friedman-KienJ. J. GoedertD. Henriksen,O. T. PrebleJ.Sonnabend* and J.Vilček (1)

    This early discovery prompted a pretty obvious question:  could the sustained presence of interferon have anything to do with the pathogenesis of this newly recognized disease?  From what was then known about the effects of interferon it was a question that certainly needed to be explored.

    Although interferon had been discovered in 1957 through its antiviral properties, by the 1970s it was already known that it had widespread effects on the immune system.

    In the first few years of the epidemic I was in a position  to begin to begin to explore the possibility that interferon played a role in this newly recognized disease.

    I was able to obtain interferon assays on sera from my patients at Robert Friedman’s lab.   Further interferon tests were done by Mathide Krim, then head of the interferon lab at Memorial Sloan Kettering cancer center.

    I also was able to obtain quite extensive immunological tests on my patients through my collaboration with David Purtilo at the University of Nebraska in Omaha.    As a result I had (and still have) a small database of my own and so was able to produce further evidence for the association of high interferon levels with low CD4 counts, as well as some other associations with interferon. (2).

    The numbers of patients was not huge but the following graphic shows that 7 people with over 50 units of interferon/ml had under 50 CD4s, 12 people with 10-49  units had under 500 CD4s while 17 people without interferon had about 700.

    There are several other interesting correlations.  Interferon levels correlate with IgA levels and not surprisingly there is an inverse correlation between CD4 counts  and IgA levels.

    This was a CRIA presentation in the 1990s from the days when I was the medical director, but the data had first been presented in 1986.

    Being familiar with the adverse immunological effects of prolonged exposure to interferon I was puzzled by the attempts to conduct trials of alpha interferon to treat AIDS.  This is very different to the benefits of interferon in treating Hepatitis C and some cases of Kaposi’s sarcoma.

    The zeal to use interferon as a treatment for HIV disease created a strange situation concerning a molecule called beta-2 microglobulin (beta 2M).

    In the early  years of the epidemic various markers were sought that could act as prognostic indicators.   It was soon found that a raised beta 2M level in the serum of patients was an adverse prognostic indicator.   High levels were indicative of a poor prognosis.   But interferon is the major stimulus for the synthesis and release of beta 2M, something that was known in the 1970s.

    In fact the adverse prognostic significance of serum interferon had already been reported early in the epidemic.

    A 1991 paper by a noted AIDS researcher, reported studies undertaken to evaluate the hypothesis that elevated beta 2M levels were associated with the production of interferon.   But this association had been well known for about 20 years!

    Beta 2M levels can be elevated in certain conditions where interferon is not detectable. But even before the onset of the epidemic we knew that when interferon levels are elevated we expect to see increases in beta 2M.   Nonetheless this particular paper was noteworthy in that it discussed this association.   Few others papers dealing with beta-2M  during those years made any mention of it, thus avoiding the following question.   If elevated beta-2M levels indicated an adverse prognosis should we not be concerned that administering interferon will result in yet further increases in beta-2M?

    This of course doesn’t mean that beta-2M mediated any pathogenic effects, but it simply prompts a question.  Of course we now know that interferon mediates some of the pathological effects of HIV disease, and beta-2M can properly be regarded as a surrogate marker for interferon.

    How is it possible to explain why in a disease characterised by low CD 4 lymphocyte counts and the presence of large amounts of interferon, it was thought that injecting yet more interferon could possibly be of help?

    Dr Fauci and other investigators tried to explain the paradox of administering interferon to people who already had huge amounts of it in their blood stream by claiming that the endogenous interferon was different.   The difference referred to was that the AIDS associated interferon could be partially inactivated by acid, whereas the administered interferon was resistant to acid (3).

    But we knew that AIDS associated interferon was neutralized by monoclonal antibodies against administered interferon, meaning that the molecules were identical, and the interferon in patients’ blood had the antiviral activity expected of alpha interferon when tested in cell cultures.  It certainly was responsible for the beta 2M.

    In fact the sensitivity to acid is not a property of the interferon molecule but is conferred by other components.  Interferon from patients that is partially purified loses its sensitivity to acid.

    This explanation which cannot stand up to even the most cursory scrutiny was apparently good enough for community writers on AIDS treatment.

    I repeatedly tried to bring attention to the probable contribution of interferon to pathogenesis without success.  I received no response to a letter that can be seen by clicking   here.

    In 1990 I was able to organize a meeting to bring basic researchers and clinicians together to discuss the role of interferon in pathogenesis and in treatment.

    The meeting was very well attended, but I have no idea if it accelerated interest in interferon’s role in pathogenesis.

    I probably angered a number of investigators when I tried – with the help of Michael Callen and Richard Berkowitz to inform people of the risks of receiving very high doses of interferon in clinical trials. We felt that information about interferon should be included in the consent form.  We even went to the lengths of taking out a paid advertisement in the New York Native to inform people about potential problems associated with receiving high dose interferon. This can be seen here. Richard Berkowitz has posted the complete ad on his website, Richardberkowitz.com

    .

    .

    It’s now more difficult to undertake studies that can investigate correlations between endogenous interferon levels and various immunological abnormalities.  It would have to be done on material stored before AZT was introduced or on individuals not receiving antiretroviral drugs.

    The reason for this is that antiviral therapy promptly removes interferon from the circulation.  This is something that the group I worked with at Roosevelt hospital, including Elena Klein and Michael Lange found shortly after AZT was introduced.  We had access to sera from clinical trials of AZT.  In one of these trials AZT was administered for a week on alternate weeks.

    We found that interferon promptly disappeared during the week on AZT, only to reappear just as promptly when AZT was discontinued.

    Another report studying sera from the same trial looked at the effect of intermittent AZT therapy on beta 2M.  The same saw tooth response of beta 2M was unsurprisingly seen, but my recollection is that the word interferon was not mentioned.

    Undoubtedly researchers today are looking at the significance of this almost immediate turning on and off of the interferon response in pin pointing the mechanism of its induction.

    With continuous AZT therapy interferon remains suppressed for about 5 weeks and then reappears and increases steadily.  Interestingly HIV as measured by p24 antigen  reappears many weeks after interferon

    One interesting implication of the effect of AZT (and other antiretroviral drugs) on endogenous interferon levels relates to hepatitis C.  It’s been noted that in coinfected individuals starting anti HIV drugs, sometimes there is an increase in liver enzymes as well as an increase in hepatitis C RNA.  It’s possible that in some individuals, hepatitis C is controlled to some extent by endogenous interferon, and flares up when interferon is removed by the anti HIV drugs.  Some researchers have commented on this although I don’t know it this possibility has actually been studied.  There are also other reasons why liver enzymes can increase on starting anti HIV drugs.

    We presented these results at a meeting I organized in New York in 1990.

    The innate immune response is a first line of defence against infection coming into play within hours.  Secretion of interferon is an important part of this response which also includes the inflammatory response.  Innate immune responses are immediate attempts to localize and overcome infections.  These beneficial responses last for a brief period because they become harmful if prolonged.  There are mechanisms that turn them off.  But in HIV infection and in pathogenic SIV infections innate immune responses are not turned off.  Persistent immune activation involving the adaptive immune system as well is at the heart of HIV disease pathogenesis.

    Several important research questions that I’m sure are being pursued are:   Why is the interferon response not turned off in HIV disease?  Why does the innate immune response continue to be activated?   What are the mechanisms that normally turn off interferon production and why are they not working?

    The precise role of interferon in contributing to CD4 loss remains to be worked out, although several mechanisms by which this can occur have been elucidated.

    But for years there was almost no work on identifying what induced such high levels of interferon and on determining which cell produced it.   It took over twenty years since interferon was first identified in AIDS sera for work to be undertaken to identify the ways in which it contributes to pathogenesis. There is still much to be learned, and hopefully the findings can be translated into new therapeutic possibilities.

    The reasons why the role of interferon in pathogenesis has been neglected for so long are undoubtedly multiple and complex. But one reason for this neglect was surely the early enthusiasm to administer it as treatment.

    But many years have been  lost by the neglect of a critical line of research the importance of which was evident in the same year that AIDS first came to attention.

    I have chosen these three references from a growing literature to illustrate what we are beginning to learn about interferon’s role in the pathogenesis of HIV disease.

    1. Herbeuval JP, Shearer GM.  HIV-1 immunopathogenesis: How good interferon Turns Bad.Clinical Immunology (2007); 123920:121-128
    2. Boasso A,Hardy AW et al.  HIV-1 induced Type 1 interferon and Tryptophan Catabolism Drive T Cell Dysfunction Despite Phenotypic Activation. PLoS ONE  (2008); 3(8): e2961
    3. Stoddart CA, Keir ME et al.  IFN-α-induced upregulation of CCR5 leads to expanded HIV tropism in vivo, PLoS pathogens (2010); 6(2) e1000766

    (1)

    Abstract

    Some immunologic parameters in homosexual patients with Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS) or unexplained lymphadenopathy resemble findings in patients with autoimmune diseases such as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Many patients with SLE have an unusual acid-labile form of human leukocyte interferon (HuIFN-α) in their serum. Sera from 91 homosexual men were tested for the presence of HuIFN. Of 27 patients with KS, 17 had significant titers of HuIFN in their serum. Ten of 35 patients with lymphadenopathy and three of four patients with other clinical symptoms also had circulating HuIFN. In contrast, only two of 25 apparently healthy subjects had serum HuIFN. All 32 samples of HuIFN had antiviral activity on resemble findings in patients with autoimmune diseases such as systemic lupus erythematosus (SLE). Many patients with bovine cells, a characteristic of HuIFN-α, and all of 14 representative samples tested were neutralized by antibody to HuIFN-α. In addition, the HuIFN-α in six of eight representative patients was inactivated at pH 2 and therefore appears to Some immunologic parameters in homosexual patients with Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS) or unexplained lymphadenopathy be similar to the HuIFN-α found in patients with SLE. These findings suggest that an autoimmune disorder may underly lymphadenopathy and KS in homosexual men.

    (2)

    Sonnabend J., Saadoun S., Griersen H., Krim M., Purtilo D.  Association of serum interferon with hematologic and immunologic parameters in homosexual men with AIDS and at risk for AIDS in New York City.

    2nd International Conference on AIDS Paris 1986.  Abstract 100

    There were several other interesting associations including a positive correlation between IgA and interferon, so needless to say, there is an inverse correlation between CD4 counts and IgA.   In the early days I used easily obtainable IgA measurements as an unproven  prognostic indicator.

    .

    (3)

    I found a transcript of a meeting in New York where Dr Fauci answered questions posed people with AIDS and their advocates, where he explains this.

    You can see this at the very end of another article I wrote about interferon and AIDS in 2009 that contains some of the same material in this blog.

    http://aidsperspective.net/blog/?p=118

  • HIV pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP): A misguided guidance issued on its use.

    Posted on February 23rd, 2011 admin No comments

    Full contents of this blog:

    Pre-exposure prophylaxis – called PrEP, is an HIV prevention intervention where antiviral drugs are taken by HIV uninfected individuals in the hope that sexual transmission of HIV will be prevented.   A recent trial of daily Truvada, a combination of two anti-HIV drugs demonstrated only a 44% reduction in the risk of becoming HIV infected by sexual transmission among men who have sex with men (MSM).     I have written about this trial a few months ago.

    Unbelievably, the use of this intervention has in effect been endorsed by the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC).   True, the CDC call their recommendations on the use of daily Truvada as PrEP an “interim guidance”.    But anything short of “don’t risk your life by taking an intervention that cannot even halve the chance of becoming HIV infected” is in effect an endorsement.    Simon Collery has also written about this calling the CDCs recommendations a “mixed message”.

    The CDC is not alone in regarding an intervention that is only 44% effective in preventing a potentially lethal infection to be good enough to be implemented.  Quite surprisingly some groups claiming to represent the interests of those at risk share this bizarre view.  One implication is that these groups, supposedly representing people at risk for sexually transmitted HIV, as well as the CDC have given up on persuading MSM to use a condom, as described by Michael Weinstein in a recent article .

    In reality groups calling for an implementation of an insufficiently effective intervention to prevent a life threatening infection may be a  small minority whose real influence is probably insignificant in relation to their noisy irrational advocacy.

    People on the ground, dealing with risk are often wiser than those who claim to advocate on their behalf, but do not have the means to influence the way issues are reported in the media.  They know that a 44% efficacy in reducing the chance of acquiring a life threatening infection is just not good enough.  They know that condoms are the most effective way to prevent sexual transmission of HIV.

    But when this insufficiently effective measure was first announced in November of 2010, it was hailed as a triumph.    Time magazine even called this ineffective intervention the most significant medical breakthrough of 2010!     I suspect these accolades may have resulted from the skill of publicists rather than of independent investigative reporting.

    But of course I may be part of a  minority in considering that a trial demonstrating that an intervention that is only 44% effective in preventing a potentially lethal infection is far from a triumph and  rather is an emphatic failure because a much more effective protective measure is readily available that’s cheaper and safer.

    Concerns that condoms may not be used regularly in appropriate situations to prevent the sexual transmission of HIV are better expressed by a support for extended properly targeted prevention education.

    PrEP trials began in the early 2000s and have had a troubled history.  Trials were planned and even several started in African countries and in Thailand and Cambodia.  Some never got off the ground, and several were stopped for a variety of reasons.  There were vigorous activist demonstrations in connection with some.     The varied concerns of activists included provision of care to trial participants who became infected, or the provision of sterile injection equipment to IV drug users in Thailand.

    I posted a blog on the POZ magazine website in August 2009 describing an ethical problem   with  PrEP trials,  essentially that  PrEP would have to be tested with an imperative to provide and encourage the use of effective means already available to prevent HIV transmission, namely condoms and sterile needles.  If these measures are conscientiously provided and their use encouraged it’s unlikely that any effect solely attributable to PrEP could be measured.  iPrEx  told us that self-reported adherence to medication is unreliable, so there is no reason to believe that self-reported frequency of unprotected sexual intercourse is any less so.

    In that post there are links to two significant articles published in 2005.   The first represents the view sympathetic to those who demonstrated against PrEP trials.  It can be seen by following this link:

    The Tenofovir pre-exposure prophylaxis trial in Thailand: Researchers should show more openness in their engagement with the community

    The second is the view of  PrEP researchers.

    The Abandonded Trials of PreExposure Prophylaxis for HIV: What went wrong?

    We Must Not Let Protestors Derail Trials of Pre Exposure Prophylaxis for HIV

    One of the ways suggested to forestall the problems that have beset so many PrEP trials in the past was to solicit a greater degree of community involvement early in the process with a view to obtaining their commitment.

    An effort was made to obtain community support for PrEP  trials  with the help of UNAIDS.      There have been many teleconferences and many publications about PrEP best seen by looking at this website. http://www.avac.org/

    .

    It’s evident that much effort and expense has been placed into engaging communities in the design and conduct of PrEP trials.  Apparently with some success as I believe the earlier upheavals associated with PrEP trials have not been repeated.

    As for as expenditure on PrEP trials and PrEP promotion, the following figure indicate funding amounts and sources.

    Despite this expenditure, it’s most unlikely that PrEP with Truvada will be used by more than a very small minority of individuals.

    Apart from the cost of the medication, it will be necessary to pay for regular tests for HIV infection and for monitoring for drug toxicity.  It’s likely that some of those who choose to use Truvada as PrEP will forgo these regularly needed tests, because of cost and other reasons.   Not only are these individuals risking infection with an insufficiently effective preventative measure, they also risk the development of virus resistant to the antiviral drugs in Truvada because of receiving a suboptimal dose during an unidentified infection.

    With only a 44% reduction in the risk of becoming HIV infected, unidentified infections are a very real possibility among individuals who choose to use daily Truvada as PrEP.  It’s realistic to be concerned that some of these individuals will not be tested regularly to detect infection.  Individuals with an undetected infection could then pose a risk to their uninfected sexual partners.    Who knows how suboptimal treatment will influence the course of initial HIV infection?.   Even the illness of primary infection that could be an alert,  may be less likely to occur.     Failure to be tested regularly would also mean that drug toxicity, specially to the kidneys is less likely to be detected.

    With all these hazards, not only to the individual using PrEP, and with the likelihood that   Truvada, and indeed other antiviral medications can be  obtained without a prescription,  the CDC’s  interim guidance is unwise.   It’s also unfortunate that there may be  some who will see additional significance in that the guidance  is specifically directed at “high risk” MSM.

    Properly targeted prevention education with the promotion of, and support for condom use  needs all the support it can receive.

    Daily Truvada as PrEP is a really bad idea.

  • AZT: The Clinical Trial that led to its approval.

    Posted on January 28th, 2011 admin No comments

    Full contents of this blog

    The clinical trial that led to the approval of AZT for the treatment of AIDS in 1987 is a landmark event, not only in the field of HIV medicine but I believe it had a major impact on the drug regulatory process that has had effects in all fields of clinical medicine.

    The trial reported in the New England Journal of medicine, had produced a dramatic result (1). Before the planned 24 week duration of the study, after a mean period of participation of about 120 days, nineteen participants receiving placebo had died while there was only a single death among those receiving AZT.   This appeared to be a momentous breakthrough and accordingly there was no restraint at all in reporting the result; prominent researchers triumphantly proclaimed the drug to be “a ray of hope” and “a light at the end of the tunnel”.  Because of this dramatic effect, the placebo arm of the study was discontinued and all participants offered 1500mg of AZT daily.

    I was treating many HIV infected individuals in 1987 when the drug was approved for the treatment of advanced AIDS.  I was puzzled by the results of the trial quite simply because those patients of mine who resembled trial participants would not have died in the period before the placebo arm was terminated.   Many patients enrolled in the trial had experienced an episode of pneumocystis pneumonia within four months of participation.  My patients and those of other experienced physicians were unlikely to die within four months of an episode of this type of pneumonia.

    This means that if my patients had enrolled in the trial it’s probable that there would have been no deaths at all by the time the placebo arm was discontinued and thus an apparent dramatic effect of AZT on mortality would not have been seen.

    There had to be an explanation for the discrepancy between the outcome of my patients (and those of other experienced physicians) and individuals participating in the trial; I was confident that an academic clinical researcher would sort this out.

    But no explanation was forthcoming.

    I was then able to obtain a copy of the FDA review of the  application submitted by Burroughs Wellcome, (the NDA) and tried to understand the discrepancy myself.

    I reviewed the report as a primary care provider to people with AIDS, and thus challenged very aggressively, both by my colleagues and by many patient advocates, to prescribe AZT.  I also reviewed the report as a clinical researcher who had designed and implemented clinical trial protocols.

    This is the report I wrote after reading the review of the NDA. (1)

    Essentially it makes the point that patient management strategies were the most significant factor influencing mortality, at least in the short term, and it could not be excluded that differences in the ways patients were managed in the trial, were to a greater or lesser extent, responsible for survival differences.  Patient management in this context refers to all the measures available, before the introduction of specific antiviral therapy, to care for individuals susceptible to infections and malignancies associated with impaired cell mediated immunity.   For example, the speed with which a potentially fatal opportunistic infection is suspected and diagnosed and efficiently treated can make the difference between life and death.   Much experience in the treatment of immunocompromised individuals had been gained before the AIDS epidemic, particularly in the field of renal transplantation, but also in other conditions.

    The AZT trial took place in 12 centers across the country.  There was no uniform approach to patient management during the trial; each of the 12 medical centers approached the most important determinant of life and death in the short term, independently.

    I will return to the implications of this lack of uniformity in patient management strategies.

    It may seem surprising today that so little attention was paid to developing methods for the optimal day to day care of patients with AIDS, but at the time there was a pervasive defeatist attitude concerning treatment.    All too commonly it was felt that nothing could be done to halt the inevitable progression of the disease to its fatal end.

    I’m not sure that it’s even possible to adequately describe the terror and desperation felt in the early 1980s.   At that time doctors on the front lines were trying to do what they could for their patients but had received little help from experts at academic medical centers and virtually none at all from Government scientists, although by 1981 when the first AIDS cases were reported,  diseases of the immunocompromised host had already become a distinct medical subspecialty.

    But by 1986 nothing of any use regarding treatments had come from the Public Health Service.  For example, people with AIDS had to wait until 1989 for the CDC to issue guidelines for the prevention of pneumocystis pneumonia, the most frequent cause of death among them, while this type of pneumonia had often been routinely prevented in many other individuals who were also at risk because they were recipients of kidney transplants, or were children with leukemia.  The means to prevent pneumocystis pneumonia had been published in 1977.

    Some community doctors were not waiting for recommendations from government scientists or from their colleagues in academic medical centers, and were learning how to care for their patients. I and several colleagues were preventing pneumocystis pneumonia among our patients for many years before the Public Health Service got around to making their recommendations.

    Those who had taken on the medical leadership of the epidemic were telling us in their silence that there was nothing much we could do – we just had to wait for a drug.

    Then, after six years of silence regarding treatments Government scientists at last told us that help was on the way.  Dr Samuel Broder who was head of the National Cancer Institute appeared on television shows trumpeting the benefits of a drug he called Compound S.   I well remember a TV show where he appeared with an AIDS patient who enthusiastically attested to the benefit he had received from the drug, presumably from 1.5G of AZT daily.

    A note about patient management strategies:

    There really was a lot that we were able to do for our patients before the advent of specific antiviral therapy.    After all, most deaths were caused by opportunistic infections, and we certainly could do a great deal to prevent and treat many of them.

    Without much guidance some doctors with large practices were able to develop structured programs of patient care.   These included the prevention of opportunistic infections when possible, the determination of susceptibility to some, and their early diagnosis and aggressive treatment.

    All too often symptoms, particularly diarrhea, fever, weight loss, and anemia were simply attributed to AIDS and not investigated. In fact, such symptoms could frequently be ameliorated if their causes were aggressively sought.  More often than not they were caused by treatable conditions.   So, patient management strategies included aggressively trying to establish the causes of such symptoms and treating them.

    It was the experts who in fact were more likely to attribute them to AIDS and therefore consider them to be untreatable

    The provision of general support, including attention to nutrition and mental health issues are parts of patient management.

    All of this is pretty labour intensive doctoring, but these measures were able to prolong the lives of our patients.

    Needless to say, it was community doctors who had to develop such strategies without much help from the experts. I suppose one has to conclude that the government medical leadership of the response to the epidemic, unlike community doctors dealing with it, must have felt that nothing could be done for people with AIDS, that the only hope to be found was in a new drug.

    Returning to the original AZT trial:

    If in the short term patient management strategies can make the difference between life and death is there any reason to consider that such strategies may have differed in those receiving placebo or AZT?

    The reason why randomized placebo controlled clinical trials are blinded, (so that neither investigator nor participant knows who is receiving placebo or active drug) is to minimize bias.  Bias can influence the outcome that might incorrectly be attributed to a drug effect.   But it’s impossible to blind a trial using AZT.  The drug causes changes in routine blood counts that investigators need to see.   Therefore we must conclude that investigators could know who was receiving AZT or placebo.   The FDA reviewer was aware of this.

    If patient management is the most important determinant of mortality in the short term, could bias have influenced the ways patients were managed?

    Unfortunately, because this was essentially an unblinded trial, the answer is yes.

    Patients known to be taking AZT or placebo might have unintentionally been treated differently, with either greater or lesser care, when the investigator was also the treating physician.  AZT may therefore have been even more effective than claimed or may have been worse.

    In some centers were there  instances where the participant also had a personal physician?   There was no analysis of trial outcomes based on this difference.  There was also no analysis of outcomes by study center.   New York City was a study site.  Were patients referred to the study site at St Lukes Roosevelt Hospital Center by personal physicians who continued to care for their patients?

    Information must still be available regarding mortality at different study centers, and in relation to whether the participant was treated by the study doctor or had a personal physician.

    Dr Fischl was the principal investigator of the trial but I don’t know if she and her team at the University of Miami were the treating physicians as well as the trial investigators.

    Incidentally this also brings up the important question of   the propriety of an individual serving as both investigator and treating physician. I believe these two roles are often incompatible; that there can be an insuperable conflict of interest that should preclude an individual from functioning in these two roles concurrently.  I have served in both capacities but in most instances, not simultaneously.

    The survival benefit in the trial attributed to AZT   may therefore, to a greater or lesser extent have been due to differences in how placebo or AZT recipients were managed.  All we can say is that the question remains, not that this was in fact the case.

    The problems resulting from unblinding were clearly acknowledged by the FDA reviewer but not by the study investigators.   Around the time of the trial report I took part in a Canadian Broadcasting Corporation telephone interview.  When I tried to bring up the issue of bias I was cut short by a NIH official who said this was too technical a detail for the audience!

    Very unfortunately, the most vocal of the critics of the AZT trial included some individuals who believed that HIV could not cause AIDS.   Their strident criticisms were unhelpful; it was evident that none of these critics had any experience in clinical trial methodology.

    It was immensely disappointing to find that many of the problems in the trial were identified by Ellen Cooper, the FDA reviewer, yet the drug was still approved at a dosage that proved to be so toxic that another trial compared a similar dose with half that dose. This exercise resulted in excess deaths among those taking the higher dose. (A randomized controlled trial of a reduced daily dose of zidovudine in patients with the Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. Margaret A Fischl et al. NEJM 1990: 323:1009-14).

    Among the many bizarre aspects surrounding the introduction of AZT was the claim that the excess deaths in those receiving the higher dose were due to AIDS – that in the case of AZT, less is better – the explanation given for the superiority of the low dose compared to the high dose was that the lower dose allowed people to remain on the drug for longer – not even a hint that the higher dose contributed to the increased mortality.  Here is the representation of the mortality differences between the two dosages:

    It’s worth reproducing the disingenuous words in which this is stated.

    “The findings in this study indicate that a lower daily dose of zidovudine is at least as effective ………as the initially tested dose of 1500mg per day and is less toxic”  “Moreover low dose therapy was associated with a better survival rate” “The reason for this better interim survival is not certain, but is most likely related to the greater likelihood that continuous antiviral therapy can be maintained with lower doses of zidovudine”

    If ever evidence was needed that AZT – at the initial recommended dose of 1500mg daily probably caused an excess mortality – the figure above provides it, despite the disingenuous claims of the authors that the deaths were due to AIDS.  A rational response would have been to work out the minimum effective dose. Why stop at 600mg a day? 300mg a day is probably just as good.  It is the dose I prescribed with no evidence that 300mg AZT daily was associated with a worse outcome.  As described in another article it is likely that endogenous interferon plays a role in pathogenesis, and AZT promptly removes it from the circulation

    That the possibility that more people on the higher dose died from AZT toxicity  is not even mentioned in the above report is a sad indication of what has become of the discussion of results section in a scientific paper, at least in the field of AIDS. Traditionally all reasonable possibilities are discussed, even to be dismissed, but not in this paper.

    The publicity following the approval of AZT was huge. Doctors received a video where AZT was billed as “A ray of hope”. I recall white coated doctors speaking about the “light at the end of the tunnel”.

    The dosage schedule was absurd.  There was no scientific basis at all for four hourly dosing.  AZT was to be taken even at night, and patients were given beepers to remind them to take their medicine exactly at the appointed time.   AZT is not the compound that blocks HIV replication. It is changed into the active compound within the cell by the addition of phosphate, and so blood levels tell you nothing about the levels of the active form in the cell. It is also a little gruesome – because as it turned out adherence to this difficult ritual was associated with great toxicity, and I can imagine that sometimes the manifestations of this toxicity would be attributed to AIDS and patients encouraged to still keep their beeper going and continue to take AZT.  At first the drug was only available if patients met certain criteria, and I know colleagues, devoted to their patients, who forged the papers to enable their patients to get the huge dose of AZT.   All on the basis of an approval based on a terribly flawed trial.

    Of course the need for some therapy was quite desperate and one must wonder if this desperation lowered the threshold of what was deemed to be acceptable, so that there was perhaps less scrutiny of the trial and the failures of AZT at the dose used – until of course toxicity forced a reconsideration of the dosage.

    The approval of AZT also set an important precedent that seemed to go unnoticed at the time, and indeed has escaped comment subsequently.

    AZT was the first drug of its kind to be approved for lifelong human use.

    The drug  is an analogue of thymidine which is a normal building block of DNA.  It is incorporated, instead of thymidine, into DNA during its synthesis, and then immediately stops further DNA chain elongation because nothing can be added to it.

    The use of such analogues able to disrupt DNA synthesis was considered to be perilous when I first dealt with them in the 1960s.  I had used them in the virology laboratory in experiments conducted in vitro, and they were handled with caution, as potentially hazardous substances.

    In clinical practice, apart from acyclovir which is a similar drug, but in a special category,   such analogues were used systemically in malignancies and some viral infections – such as herpes encephalitis or neonatal herpes, but only for short periods.  Acyclovir is in a different category as it can only be used by the herpes virus enzymes, and has no effect in cells not infected with herpes viruses.    The idea of a possibly lifelong exposure to a DNA chain terminating compound – or even an analogue that is incorporated into DNA that continues to be synthesized, was I believe a novel concept at that time. To emphasize, what was novel was not the use of such compounds, but a life time exposure to them. .    So, I was somewhat concerned at the very idea of this approach, and also found it strange that colleagues were mostly silent on this issue.  These analogues need to undergo changes in the cell, and are added to the growing DNA chain by enzymes, either those that belong to the cell, or enzymes that are specific to the virus, such as the reverse transcriptase of HIV.  It was hoped that AZT, which is turned into its active form by cellular enzymes, would be preferentially used by the viral rather than the cell enzymes that synthesize DNA, and therefore not terminate cellular DNA synthesis; there was some evidence to support this. HIV’s reverse transcriptase adds AZT to the viral DNA chain, while cellular enzymes add it to cellular DNA. Cell DNA is found in two different sites. In the nucleus it is the DNA that constitutes our genome – that is all the information that determines our inherited characteristics. DNA is also found in cellular structures called mitochondria which are the source of the energy needed by the cell. Two different enzymes are needed to make DNA in each situation. While there was comforting evidence that AZT much preferred the viral reverse transcriptase to the enzyme that makes our genomic DNA, this preference was less evident in the case of the enzyme that makes mitochondrial DNA. In fact much of the toxicity of AZT is a result of its effect on mitochondrial DNA synthesis.

    I never prescribed AZT when it was first approved, and when I did it was at a dose of 300mg a day.  Because I was one of the few physicians around 1987 who did not prescribe AZT I attracted patients who were reluctant to take it and whose physicians were nor supportive of this choice.  I also received severe criticism for my position

    This original AZT trial did however clearly demonstrate to me how important patient management strategies were in the treatment of AIDS, particularly in the days before the more potent antiviral drugs became available.

    The New England Journal of medicine, which reported the original trial, rejected my review of the FDA report.    I sent copies to all the clinicians who were prominent in the field – as well as to several patient advocates. There was not a single response – not even to reject the points I made.  Just total silence.  Realizing the difficulty in publishing independent material we – myself and mostly Michael Callen , decided to publish an independent journal.  We called it AIDS Forum. Michael was the editor, and it lasted for three issues.

    One last comment on the baneful effects of this trial:  While it was not responsible for the undue influence industry has on medical practice, this trial probably provided the greatest impetus towards the sad situation we are in today. It is possible that in the field of HIV medicine, industry had its greatest opportunity to establish a firm hold on many different ways to influence practice. These include not only marketing strategies, but influence on guidelines committees, support of continuing medical education, the support of medical conferences and influence on reports of their proceedings, as well as the invention of the Key Opinion leader or KOL, to provide information to physicians.    “Key Opinion Leader” is not the only absurd designation in this field.  We also have “Thought Leader”.  Needless to say these distinctions are not conferred by any academic institution; I would assume that the marketing departments of pharmaceutical companies are responsible for choosing who deserve these titles.

    (1)

    N Engl J Med 1987; 317:185-191July 23, 1987

  • AIDS Origins.

    Posted on September 30th, 2010 admin No comments

    Unsafe medical practices in equatorial Africa fifty to eighty years ago probably helped to set in motion an epidemic of hepatitis C infection.

    Two articles in the current issue of Clinical Infectious Diseases show that injections for the treatment and prevention of endemic diseases highly prevalent in parts of the Central African Republic and Cameroon were probably responsible for the spread of the hepatitis C virus and of human T lymphotropic virus 1 (HTLV-1).

    Human African Trypanosomiasis more familiarly known as sleeping sickness is spread by the bite of the tsetse fly and is almost invariably fatal if untreated.  It is a horrible disease.  This video will give some idea of its impact1.

    Sleeping sickness was highly prevalent in south-eastern regions of the Central African Republic.

    It was treated with intramuscular injections of pentamidine after about 1946 until 1950.  Before 1946, subcutaneous or intravenous injections of another drug, orsanine, had been used.  If there was central nervous system involvement treatment consisted of 12 weekly intravenous injections of yet another drug,  tryparsamide.   Injections of pentamidine were also used at a population level to prevent infection.   Intramuscular injections were given twice a year between 1947 and 1953.

    In Cameroon, the risk of acquiring hepatitis C was associated with the intravenous administration of quinine to treat malaria.   Other possibilities for transmission 50-80 years ago include intravenous injections to treat syphilis or yaws, and   blood transfusions.

    Re-usable equipment was all that was available at that time.  Disposable needles and syringes had not yet been introduced.   Much less information would have then been available about how easily infectious agents can be transferred by contaminated injection equipment.

    The relevance to HIV is that the rural areas in the south east of the Central African Republic and the southern Cameroon are close to the sites where SIVcpx has been isolated from chimpanzees.   This virus is believed to be the precursor of HIV-1.

    The HIV-1 and HIV-2 epidemics originated from cross species jumps from two different non-human primates.  Attempts have been made, in the case of HIV-1, to pinpoint in time when the fateful transfer occurred, as if it were a unique event, rather than something that has probably happened countless times.  Cross species transmission of some viruses may in fact be quite efficient.  Simian foamy virus (SFV) causes absolutely  no ill effects in humans, but about 25% of people reporting a monkey bite or scratch in Cameroon  have evidence of SFV infection.

    Man and other primates have been living in proximity in Africa for millennia, so cross species transfer of viruses will have been frequent.

    The “why now” question about the HIV epidemic is not about when the species jump occurred, but about when conditions were such that widespread human to human infection became likely enough to start an epidemic.    It’s just not plausible that two unique events, the jump of HIV-1 and HIV-2, each from two different primate species occurred in the same time frame.

    Conditions that enabled the widespread transmission of HIV between humans probably resulted from a multiplicity of factors coming together at the same time.  But part of the puzzle may be explained by unsafe medical practices 50 to 80 years ago in regions of Africa where SIVcpz has been found.   What may have been fateful was not a unique monkey to human transmission but that something that happens repeatedly    was occurring at a particular time and place where further spread between humans was facilitated to a greater or lesser extent by unsafe medical practices.

    In previous posts about the pathogenesis of HIV disease I have frequently pointed out the relevance of some endemic infections in Africa to HIV disease.   Some of these infections, by contributing to immune activation will enhance HIV replication, and it seems reasonable that infectivity will increase because of greater viral loads.   So this is yet an additional factor favouring the spread of HIV.  The regions of the Central African Republic and Cameroon mentioned above carry a particularly heavy burden of endemic infections associated with immune activation.

    Are unsafe medical practices a thing of the past?

    Do we no longer need to be concerned that they may contribute to the spread of HIV infection?

    Simon Collery works in development in Kenya.  He is in a position to address the issue of the safety of medical practices from the field.

    The following was written by Simon Collery:

    I have been studying the spread and decline of HIV through Kenya for seven years, using any relevant material I can find, whether it be medical, scientific, economic, geographical or administrative. Part of the picture I have of the epidemic in Kenya is drawn from this research.

    Another part of the picture derives from living and working in Kenya, and also some time in Tanzania and Uganda, for three years, talking with people, observing, writing, discussing and reasoning.

    My tentative conclusions are that, despite being extremely poor, having a very high disease burden, low levels of education, terrible healthcare, crumbling infrastructure, long periods of food insecurity and many other adverse conditions, Kenyans are much like people from other countries.  That may not sound like a very profound conclusion until you compare it to assumptions that are frequently made that Africans have a great deal of sex much of it being unsafe.

    On the other hand when it comes to health care facilities Kenyans are exposed to conditions that are vastly different to those experienced by people living in the developed world.

    Let’s look at Kenya in more detail. Overall prevalence of HIV infection is about 7%, but in North Eastern Province it’s less than 1%, about a third of the level found in Washington DC. But in the poorest province, the one with the highest rates of poverty, the lowest levels of education, the least access to health services and some of the highest rates of ‘unsafe’ sexual behaviour, you also find the lowest prevalence of HIV.

    In contrast, the highest rates of HIV are found among one tribe, the Luo, many of whom depend on the fast declining fishing industry around Lake Victoria. Prevalence there is 20% or higher, closer to rates found in the highest prevalence countries in the world, such as Swaziland or Lesotho.

    Many aspects of sexual behaviour in the Luo area are similar to what you’d find in other areas, in Kenya and elsewhere.

    HIV is not just about sex. Therefore, reducing HIV transmission should consist of more than education to reduce sexual transmission.

    When it comes to non-sexual transmission of HIV, such as transmission through unsafe injections, UNAIDS does not say very much, merely referring to their statement that 70 -90% of transmissions result from heterosexual sex.

    How did they work out that HIV transmission from unsafe injections in Kenya probably only contribute between 0.6 and 2% of infections? The question is pertinent considering the same report that includes this table, admits that there is very little information available on injection safety and that it is difficult to get baselines.

    The World Health Organization gives a slightly different story . They estimate that, worldwide, up to 40% of injections are unsafe, because needles and syringes are reused without sterilization. In some countries this figure can be as high as 70%. They also estimate that about 70% of injections are unnecessary or the drug could be administered orally. These phenomena give rise to over one third of hepatitis B and C infections and between 2% and 9% of HIV infections.

    Where does Kenya fit into this picture? As UNAIDS admit, there’s not much data. But there is a document called the Service Provision Assessment which looks at conditions in various kinds of health facility, such as hospitals, clinics and pharmacies.

    A few samples from this document may suffice to illustrate Kenya’s capacity to prevent HIV transmission through unsafe injections and other healthcare practices: Between 10 and 15% of facilities don’t have adequate supplies of needles, syringes or latex gloves; between 55 and 70% don’t have running water or soap; many don’t have facilities for disposing of contaminated equipment or supplies of disinfectant; less than half have guidelines for infection prevention and less than 10% have guidelines for sterilization.

    Although this document dates from 2004, we don’t know if there has been any change.

    Here is part of a table from the report:

    There’s little doubt that unsafe health care is still a problem in Kenya and other high HIV prevalence countries. What’s not clear is how big a problem it is. Because, despite admitting that they don’t have the sort of data on unsafe health care that would allow an estimate to be made, UNAIDS and the WHO have failed to investigate or to carry out the research required.

    While sexual transmission may be the predominant mode of HIV transmission, non-sexual transmission is significant and neglected.  What is inescapable is that, if we truly care about the health of populations, the conditions of health care facilities in many parts of the world are completely unacceptable, as shown in the WHO report above.  These conditions pose a danger of acquiring not only HIV, but of many other infectious diseases.

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    1:  This video was made in the Democratic Republic of Congo where in some regions the prevalence of trypanosomiasis exceeds that of HIV.  Although HIV replication can be enhanced by many endemic infections In Africa, trypanosomiasis may be one that could exert an inhibitory effect.

    This was also posted to my POZ blog site.

  • We need reliable evidence to justify an earlier start of anti-retroviral therapy. May, 2009

    Posted on May 19th, 2010 admin No comments


    The most recent revision of the US Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) guidelines for the treatment of HIV/AIDS recommended initiation of anti-retroviral treatment at a CD4 count of 500.

    This recommendation was made in the absence of evidence from a prospective randomized clinical trial.   Instead, evidence of inferior quality was relied on.

    Much is at stake for HIV infected individuals.  The point in the course of HIV infection when treatment is initiated can affect the duration and quality of life.

    Rather than issuing interim guidelines pending the completion of a prospective randomized trial the guidelines committee has jumped the gun, relying on evidence of inferior quality.

    In the following article, John Falkenberg reminds us of the harm that has resulted from basing recommendations on observational cohort studies.

    —————————————————————————————

    John Falkenberg  New York, NY

    Doctors and patients always have the right to choose treatment that is not based on data generated from well-designed clinical trials.  However, I worry when treatment guidelines are based on cohort studies or anecdote, and it’s alarming when the city of San Francisco and Project Inform endorse that practice.

    No study is cited more often than NA-ACCORD, an observational cohort study, to support early antiretroviral therapy.  Besides the many historical examples of harm caused by treatment guidelines based on observational studies (see the Nurses’ Health Study, below), NA-ACCORD suffers from more than the self selection bias of observational studies:  a large percentage of the deferred treatment group, approximately 45%, did not initiate therapy and/or did not have a decline in CD4 counts.  How can those findings be extrapolated to clinical practice?  In addition, the early treatment group may have had incomparable medical care.  For example, were lipids more carefully monitored in that group resulting in more aggressive use of statins, a class of drug with pleiotropic effects that include improving endothelial function, enhancing the stability of atherosclerotic plaques, decreasing oxidative stress and inflammation, and inhibiting the thrombogenic response.  These drugs have demonstrated morbidity and mortality benefits in clinical settings where lipid levels are normal.

    The history of HIV treatment guidelines is an excellent reminder of the risk of formulating guidelines based on observational studies and anecdotal evidence.  However, HIV is not the best example.  There are clinical settings where “more compelling” cohort data using medications considered relatively safe served as the basis for treatment guidelines that ultimately were proven wrong at a significant cost.

    I think the best example pertains to the use of hormone replacement therapy (HRT) in postmenopausal women.  There were many anecdotal, observational and retrospective reports of the many benefits of HRT, but the Nurses’ Health Study was the flagship.  The Nurses Heath Study was a case control, observational study of over 120,000 nurses, including over 20,000 who were post menopausal.  As the follow up continued for years, an increasing number of women reached menopause, and various health variables were monitored and reported.  The most striking “conclusion” of this study was that the relative risk of death was 0.63 in HRT users vs. non users.  The risk of major coronary artery disease among HRT users was 0.60 when compared to those who never used HRT.  Both of these findings were statistically significant.  These data were broadly reported in medical journals, and professional meetings.  The data were added to the HRT prescribing information and aggressively promoted by the pharmaceutical industry, particularly the manufacturer of Premarin (American Home Products, renamed Wyeth, recently acquired by Pfizer), the most widely prescribed HRT.

    There was huge resistance to conducting a prospective randomized controlled trial in this population.  “It denies the placebo-controlled group the protective heart benefits of HRT.”  “It is unethical to randomize people who would clearly benefit from HRT to placebo.”  “No one would enroll in this trial considering what we already know about the benefits of HRT in this population.”  Despite the criticism, the Women’s Health Initiative, a prospective randomized controlled study of HRT in postmenopausal women was conducted.  In July 2002 the study was halted early due to a statistically significant excess risk of heart attack, stroke and breast cancer in those receiving HRT versus those on placebo; a finding that literally rocked the world of HRT.

    More recently, long-term treatment recommendations in diabetes were debunked by results from the first well designed, randomized controlled study (coincidently named ACCORD), with cardiovascular clinical endpoints.  Using multiple medications for intensive glucose lowering and intensive blood pressure reduction did not reduce cardiovascular events but only increased adverse events.  Once again, guidelines formulated without data derived from controlled clinical trials did more harm than good.

    There is a lot at stake here and I fear that this is déjà vu all over again.  The NA-ACCORD results are compelling and generate a hypothesis that needs to be tested, but the clinical trial has yet to be performed and the evidence is absent.  I find it difficult to understand why those of us who have lived during decades of this epidemic, who have seen those living with HIV experience a wide range in the rate of disease progression, and who have seen the rise and fall of early antiretroviral therapy, do not demand more.  I’m shocked by both the city of San Francisco and Project Inform.

    I cannot claim to know the motivation behind the current push for early treatment without evidence.  However, I do know the pressure felt by the pharmaceutical industry as they approach a patent cliff with little in the advanced research pipeline and significant overcapacity.  It is not coincidental that lobbying efforts have been stepped up in an economic climate where value driven medicine is a new priority.  That lobbying includes an aggressive push to eliminate informed consent for HIV testing and a push for early treatment.  And, here we are with major public health agencies and CBO’s jumping on the bandwagon without the evidence

  • AIDS Pathogenesis: HIV disease has characteristics of positive feedback systems

    Posted on April 2nd, 2010 admin No comments

    There is a similar and slightly extended version of this post on the blog I have on the POZ website. It’s in two parts:

    Part 1

    Part 2

    HIV infection and many other infections caused by a wide variety of microorganisms have a mutually enhancing relationship that is characteristic of positive feedback systems.

    Although the reciprocal enhancing effects of HIV and other infections have been frequently described since the late 1980s, it is useful to explicitly recognize these as positive feedback systems as this highlights the implications they have for treatment of individuals and for control of the epidemic.  Explicitly recognizing the positive feedback characteristic of HIV disease also provides a way of looking at pathogenesis that can suggest further studies, both clinical and laboratory, that might advance our understanding of mechanisms of disease acquisition.

    This is an illustration of positive feedback.    A stimulates B which in turn stimulates A. In this way the effects of A and B are increased.

    The infections associated with the immunological disorders of HIV disease are generally, but not solely, caused by microorganisms that replicate within cells.     Many of the organisms that cause these infections survive in healthy people without causing disease, prevented from doing so by a competent immune system.   When the immune system fails these infectious agents start to divide.   They may then cause disease.  An additional effect of some of these active infections is to accelerate the replication of HIV.  Several mechanisms are responsible for this effect, which can then result in further immunological deterioration.

    In addition, co-infection with many of the pathogens that also affect individuals with intact immune systems can also promote HIV replication.

    Not all co- infections result in a more rapid progression of HIV disease.  Many have no effect and a few have even been reported to cause a temporary improvement of HIV disease.    This may be the case with measles, scrub typhus and a form of transfusion associated hepatitis.   But more often, when an effect of a co-infection has been noted, it has been to promote HIV disease progression.

    Different co-infections can therefore affect the course of HIV disease in different ways.  Some may have no impact on the course of HIV disease; a few may possibly cause a temporary amelioration.   Those that are able to accelerate it are highly prevalent in HIV infected individuals.

    Worldwide, viruses of the herpes family are probably the most important of the co-infections that interact with HIV in a mutually enhancing fashion. .    Virtually all adults are infected with some of these viruses that usually exist in a latent or dormant state.  They are readily activated in the setting of HIV infection and then promote further HIV replication by a number of different mechanisms.

    In developing nations a range of different endemic infections, depending on geography, may be just as important; many can also accelerate HIV disease progression.  Conversely, HIV infection can promote progression of some  endemic infections.

    Several different mechanisms have been uncovered that can explain the effects of co-infections on promoting HIV replication.    With such a wide range of infections, the precise ways in which each do this will vary in detail.

    However there is one characteristic possessed by all HIV potentiating infections.  This is their ability to add to the immune activation that is a feature of progressive HIV disease.

    By now I think it is generally accepted that chronic immune activation not only results from HIV infection but is a major contributor to the pathogenesis of HIV disease.   A state of sustained high level immune activation is the basis of the chronic inflammation and immunologic deterioration characteristic of progressive   HIV disease.

    But what exactly is immune activation?

    Immune activation refers to those changes that take place in the immune system when exposed to an infectious agent that allow it to eliminate or control the infection.  Essentially, the immune system is activated from a resting state to fight an infection.   Generally this process will last for days until the infection is overcome, and usually but not always, is followed by a lifelong immunity to the infectious agent.

    However in progressive HIV disease the immune system continues to be activated at a high level and it is this sustained immune activation that eventually results in disease.   An activated state of the immune system is characterized by differentiation of precursor immune system cells.  Differentiation is the process by which these cells develop specialized functions.   Examples of cells that have acquired specialized functions are those that produce specific antibodies, or those with the ability to kill other cells infected with specific microorganisms.   Proliferation of immune system cells is an important characteristic of an activated state.  This is usually a short-term response subsiding with control of the infection that stimulated it.  But in progressive HIV disease, proliferation is sustained, probably with episodic cycles of further accelerations, and this continued proliferation contributes to the loss of immune system cells.

    These cellular changes, differentiation and proliferation, are associated with the secretion of a variety of cytokines.  Cytokines are molecules that can change the behaviour of cells by binding to specific receptors on their surfaces, for example, causing them to divide.  Once released, cytokines not only attach to receptors on other cells but can also come back and attach to the receptors on the cell that produced it.

    The cytokines that are released   have widespread effects.  Importantly, they include those that are associated with inflammatory changes, – the pro-inflammatory cytokines.    With respect to positive feedback, pro-inflammatory cytokines including IL-6 and TNF alpha are able to accelerate HIV replication.

    A part of the immune system, the innate immune system, responds immediately to infection by recognizing molecular patterns common to different organisms.  The more familiar adaptive immune system responds to specific characteristics unique to each organism.

    The innate immune system is also activated in untreated HIV infection.   Interestingly effects of activation of innate immunity were recognized very early in the epidemic, even before HIV was discovered, and so are among the earliest recognized AIDS related immunological abnormalities.  Activated innate immunity is responsible for the large amounts of alpha interferon in the circulation of people with untreated HIV/AIDS, first noted in 1981, the year this disease first came to our attention[i].   At that time the origin of this endogenous interferon was not known.   For a period, elevated levels of beta 2- microglobulin were regarded as an adverse prognostic marker.  This molecule can be regarded as a surrogate marker for interferon.   The association of interferon with abnormalities characteristic of this disease – including low CD4 numbers was also reported in the first 2-3 years of the epidemic[ii].   Over twenty years later mechanisms have been discovered that can explain the participation of interferon in the disease process[iii].

    Interferon appearing in the circulation in untreated HIV disease may even be the first marker of immune activation noted, although not recognized as such when first observed

    The changes that occur on activation of the immune system are associated with many other markers that can be measured.    Different molecules appear on the surface of activated cells.  These can be detected and measured, as can the cytokines associated with immune activation.

    These measurements can tell us the extent of immune activation.   Importantly, the degree of immune activation parallels the rate of HIV disease progression.

    Although it is now accepted that the consequences of continued activation and proliferation of immune system cells contribute to the loss of CD4 cells and the development of disease, the precise way it does so is not yet known, although there  are a number of different mechanisms  that could account for it.  The   associated inflammation also has adverse effects beyond the immune system.   For more detailed information on these mechanisms there are references to two reviews at the end of this article[iv].

    Sustained immune activation is therefore at the heart of HIV/AIDS pathogenesis.   It is the sustained nature of the activated state that is critical.  Short lived states of immune activation are of course beneficial allowing us to recover from infections.  But in progressive HIV disease the process continues at variable rates.   Understanding what causes continued immune activation is central to an understanding of the pathogenesis of HIV disease.

    What causes Immune activation?

    While infection with HIV may start the process, other causes of immune activation are almost certainly also necessary to keep it going.

    The following all contribute:

    1:            The immune response to HIV itself.   This includes both innate and adaptive immune responses.  As noted above, adaptive responses are the familiar specific antibody and cell mediated responses that provide generally lifelong immunity to specific infectious agents.  Innate responses depend on recognition of molecular patterns common to several organisms.

    Some suggest that HIV contributes directly to immune activation through binding of some of its proteins to immune system cells.

    2:            Microbial products that can penetrate into the intestinal wall as a result of damage caused by HIV.  These microbial products then activate immune system cells.

    3:            Other infections.

    Some like active herpesvirus infections or the more traditional opportunistic infections can be seen as indirect effects of HIV infection.

    Others are infections that can cause disease in people with intact immune systems like the endemic infections in developing nations. Some of these can be more severe in the setting of HIV infection.

    Infections that can accelerate HIV replication include those caused by bacteria, viruses, protozoa and helminths.

    Those that promote HIV disease progression can  usefully be  described in three categories.

    A:            Herpes virus infections.   These are probably the most important worldwide.  Virtually 100% of adults are infected with some of them.     They represent infections that are more often latent, but are  readily activated  in HIV infected individuals.

    B:            Endemic infections caused by a variety of different microorganisms than promote HIV disease progression and HIV replication.   These are important in developing nations.

    C:            Other infections.  These include the opportunistic infections, as well as those that can affect people with intact immune systems.  TB may be the most important.  HIV infected individuals are much more susceptible to active TB infections than those who are HIV uninfected.  HIV transcriptional activity and viral loads have been noted to be higher in people with active TB.

    Here is a little more detail about these three classes of infection:

    A:  Herpesviruses.

    There are eight members of the herpesvirus family that can infect humans.   Herpes simplex virus types 1 and 2 (HSV-1, HSV-2) are perhaps the most familiar.  Cytomegalovirus (CMV) and the Epstein-Barr virus (EBV) infect close to 100% of adults.   Varicella-Zoster virus (VZV) causes chicken pox on initial infection and shingles when reactivated. Of the three remaining human herpes viruses HHV-6, HHV-7, and HHV-8, the last is associated with Kaposi’s sarcoma.

    With all of the herpes viruses, once infected, individuals carry them for the rest of their lives, usually in a dormant or inactive state.  All can be periodically reactivated with or without symptoms.

    Humans and herpes viruses have co-existed for evolutionary periods and are well adapted to each other.   The immune system generally maintains these viruses in a latent sate so that they cause no harm.  Reactivation does occur periodically but is generally limited.  Virtually 100% of adults will carry some viruses of the herpesvirus family, usually in a dormant or latent state.

    The impaired immunity characteristic of HIV disease however results in reactivation of herpes virus infections. In progressive HIV disease these viruses become active and through a variety of mechanisms, including their contribution to immune activation, promote the replication of HIV.    Cytomegalovirus (CMV) may be the most important of the herpesviruses that promote HIV disease progression.  It can be part of a positive feedback system in its interactions with HIV.

    HIV → latent herpes infections  →active herpes infections → HIV

    It is not only through their contributions to immune activation that herpes viruses promote HIV replication.   In addition to the pro-inflammatory cytokines that have this effect, herpes virus gene products can directly activate HIV if a cell is infected with both viruses.  This process, called transactivation works both ways; HIV can also activate herpes viruses.

    In addition herpes infections cause a receptor (Fc) to appear on cell surfaces that allows HIV to enter it.  In this way cells that do not possess CD4 molecules can become infected with HIV.   Active CMV infections can also exert a mildly immunosuppressive effect.

    Herpesviruses, particularly CMV are singled out because they probably play a significant role in the pathogenesis of HIV disease.  CMV infections are so common that it is hard to find HIV infected individuals who are free from it so that they can be compared to those who are not.   But as early as 1991 this was done with HIV infected haemophiliac patients, when it was noted that those also infected with CMV had a much more rapid progression of their HIV disease[v].

    That CMV may play a role was suggested by many very early in the epidemic.  A multifactorial model for the development of this disease published in 1983 before HIV was discovered suggested a major role for CMV and EBV[vi].    The considerable evidence for a role for herpesviruses, particularly for CMV, did not disappear with the discovery of HIV.   The interactions of CMV and other herpes viruses with HIV that have been discovered may now explain their role.

    Large studies on the effects of acyclovir on the course of HIV infection have provided compelling evidence that active infection with these viruses can be regarded as part of the disease process for most HIV infected individuals.    Investigators focussed on HSV-2 undoubtedly because it is the most common cause of genital ulcers.   The dose of acyclovir used would also have suppressed  HSV-1, which is even more prevalent than HSV-2 and may be more sensitive to acyclovir.  HIV viral loads and the rate of HIV disease progression were reduced in individuals receiving acyclovir compared to those receiving placebo.  Although genital ulcer recurrences were suppressed by acyclovir, the drug had no effect on the transmission of HIV.

    The effects of acyclovir on HIV probably resulted from suppression of active herpes infection.  This is entirely consistent with a model that places HIV and herpesviruses in a positive feedback relationship.

    EBV and CMV are much more resistant to acyclovir than HSV-1 and 2.   But it cannot be excluded that this drug did not have some effect in also diminishing reactivations of CMV and EBV.   If samples from the trial have been stored appropriately, this can be looked at.  EBV reactivation patterns are easily recognized, CMV virus isolation is possible and even detection and quantification of activated T lymphocytes would tell us something.

    B:  Endemic infections:

    These are singled out because of their high prevalence in some parts of the developing world.

    These infections affect significant proportions of the population, they tend to be chronic and persist in the absence of treatment.    The specific infections will depend on geography and many are transmitted by insects.   Many of these can also accelerate   HIV disease progression, and some also progress more rapidly in the setting of HIV infection[vii].

    C:   Other infections:

    On an individual level, some episodic infections can promote HIV replication.   An acute febrile illness may increase HIV viral loads, but this is a transient effect lasting for the duration of the infection.

    Most of the serious opportunistic infections occur late in the course of HIV disease, and may promote even further disease progression.

    TB deserves special consideration because of its high prevalence in HIV infection.  Susceptibility to TB is increased even at higher CD4 levels. Active TB can then promote further HIV replication thus becoming a partner with HIV in a positive feedback interaction[viii].

    A role for immune activation in a positive feedback system:

    One way to look at the process of disease acquisition in HIV infection assigns a central role to immune activation.

    Immune activation not only results from HIV infection, it can also promote further replication of HIV.

    HIV replicates more efficiently in activated immune system cells.  Secondly, the pro-inflammatory cytokines that are associated with an activated immune system   can directly stimulate HIV replication.   Progressive HIV disease and immune activation are therefore components of a positive feedback system in this way.

    HIV disease → Immune activation → HIV disease → Immune activation

    The process starts with HIV infection, and is promoted by other infections , some of which are activated by HIV infection.

    Whatever is driving immune activation is driving HIV disease.

    The following diagram illustrates this.

    Looking at the course of HIV infection in this way has a number of implications.

    Pathogenesis.

    In the above diagram the course of HIV disease is represented by a self perpetuating cycle proceeding in a clockwise direction.

    In addition to the elements that have positive effects in driving the process, there will also be those that retard the cycle.  Two influences that will slow the cycle are the residual immunological control of HIV  infection, and those mechanisms that dampen immune activation.  Amongst the latter are the effects of a  subset of Tregs,  T cells with regulatory function, and the secretion of anti-inflammatory cytokines.    Since sustained immune activation is harmful, there are mechanisms that can dampen it.     This is illustrated in the next diagram (edited from an earlier version ) which focuses for simplicity on those infections that add to immune activation and on processes that dampen it.    Of course there are other mitigating factors, for example, genetic factors conferring varying degrees of resistance resulting from receptor polymorphism.

    In the diagram, the connection of HIV with CMV and other herpes viruses is probably constant and indicated by a red arrow.   The connection of HIV with endemic and associated infections is indicated by a blue dotted line, because HIV infection does not increase susceptibility to all of them, nor does it accelerate the progression of all.

    [October 5,2010:  This illustration is one  redrawn  for a later post.  The added text is HERE.

    The positive feedback cycle starts with HIV infection.  At least some of the determinants of the rate of disease progression may be found in the conditions that exist at the time of initial infection that promote or retard the cycle.

    There is evidence that the degree of immune activation at the time of seroconversion predicts future disease progression.[ix] [x] It may also be an important determinant of what is called the set point.  This is the point following initial infection with HIV, from which CD4 numbers decline.

    The degree of immune activation at seroconversion thus influences the starting CD4 level; the rate of subsequent decline is influenced by the degree of immune activation  in a system where once started, conditions can exist where  immune activation increases with falling CD4 numbers, in a self perpetuating and accelerating fashion.   Whatever the outcome, it will be the balance of positive and negative influences.

    In the earliest years there were reports of EBV reactivation preceding HIV seroconversion[xi].

    I have not seen any follow up of this interesting report.   It at least suggests that there might even be   situations in which active herpes infections could sometimes promote seroconversion.  They certainly produce signals that can activate HIV transcription from proviral DNA.

    Treatment and prevention.

    The role of immune activation in driving HIV disease is generally accepted now.   There are sources of immune activation other than HIV and some of these can be controlled.

    Attempts to identify and control additional sources of immune activation may be critical in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

    Perhaps the most significant benefit in this respect concerns the developing world, where there are so many additional sources of immune activation. Even ascariasis, infestation with the common intestinal round worm is associated with significant immune activation.   Worldwide prevalence is estimated to be about one billion, with 173 million in sub-Saharan Africa.

    Many highly prevalent endemic infections can promote HIV replication.  Controlling these are perfectly appropriate targets in the fight against HIV/AIDS, and of course this would independently improve the lives of millions of individuals.

    Measures to control endemic infections include traditional public health interventions, such as the provision of sanitation and clean water and the control of insect vectors. Effective drugs are sometimes inexpensive.  Peter Hotez has written an article entitled “Africa’s 32 cent solution to AIDS”.[xii] This refers to the price of Praziquantel , effective in treating  schistosomiasis as a single dose.

    The lives of impoverished populations are ravaged and shortened by these infections. Many of these infections also interact with HIV to compound the devastation they cause.  Poverty, multiple endemic infections and HIV are intimately intertwined and in many instances reciprocally affect each other.

    Recent and ongoing studies will probably lead to the routine use of drugs that are effective against herpes virus infections.       Trials of valacyclovir to reduce HIV viral loads are in progress. Given the ubiquitous nature of herpes infections, the use of acyclovir as adjunctive therapy might be warranted even in the absence of recurrent herpetic ulcers.  Valacyclovir unfortunately is not yet available as a generic medication.

    Unfortunately EBV and CMV are much more resistant to these drugs.   The development of agents less toxic than valgancyclovir is important.   Valgancyclovir has already been shown to reduce immune activation in HIV infected individuals as measured by a reduction in activated CD8 lymphocytes.

    In summary it is useful to explicitly recognize the positive feedback interactions between HIV and other infections that can promote its replication, some of which are in turn promoted by HIV.    Control of the AIDS epidemic in Africa must include measures to prevent and treat multiple endemic infections that affect hundreds of millions of individuals.


    [i] This is of particular interest to me as I was involved in the discovery of large amounts of interferon in the circulation of people with HIV/AIDS in 1981, the year the disease was a first described.

    http://aidsperspective.net/articles/Interferon_Vilcek.pdf

    http://aidsperspective.net/blog/?p=118

    [ii] http://aidsperspective.net/articles/Interferon-AZT-1991.pdf Fig 1 shows CD4 counts in relation to serum interferon  . Presented 1986 at the 2nd international aids conference in Paris.

    [iii] http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2491901/

    [iv] Immune activation and inflammation in HIV-1 infection:  causes and consequences.

    V.Appay and D. Sauce

    J.Pathol. 2008; 214: 231-241

    (This is an important  review)

    HIV immunopathogenesis and strategies for intervention.

    M. Cadogan and A Dalgleish

    Lancet Infectious diseases. 2008: 8: 675-84

    [v] http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/119316871/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0

    [vi] http://aidsperspective.net/articles/NYAS.pdf

    [vii] Endemic infections in Africa have everything to do with HIV/AIDS:

    http://aidsperspective.net/blog/?p=403

    [viii]

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1905977/

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/14551885?ordinalpos=1&itool=PPMCLayout.PPMCAppController.PPMCArticlePage.PPMCPubmedRA&linkpos=4

    http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/12416451?ordinalpos=1&itool=PPMCLayout.PPMCAppController.PPMCArticlePage.PPMCPubmedRA&linkpos=5

    [ix] http://jvi.asm.org/cgi/content/full/81/16/8838?maxtoshow=&HITS=10&hits=10&RESULTFORMAT=&fulltext=fig&searchid=1&FIRSTINDEX=1440&resourcetype=HWFIG

    [x]

    http://bloodjournal.hematologylibrary.org/cgi/content/full/104/4/942

    [xi]

    http://www3.interscience.wiley.com/journal/119342256/abstract?CRETRY=1&SRETRY=0

    [xii] http://www.plosntds.org/article/info:doi/10.1371/journal.pntd.0000430

  • HIV Treatment as Prevention. March 2010

    Posted on March 4th, 2010 admin No comments

    “Treatment as prevention” is in the news again as part of the media coverage of two conferences in California this month where claims were again made that treatment of virtually all HIV infected individuals could bring an end to the AIDS epidemic.

    “Research shows that treatment could end the epidemic in thirty years” is typical of the headlines that enthusiastically announced this proposal to test and treat everybody found to be infected. Sadly, most of the reports I saw failed to comment on the huge practical difficulties that will need to be overcome to make such a project feasible. All ignored a probably insuperable ethical obstacle that will have to be confronted, which may well make the project completely unworkable. Added to these difficulties is the lack of agreement on the soundness of the mathematical model on which the proposal is based.

    This initiative is also described as “treatment as prevention” although I also saw the term “seek, test and treat” used.

    The prevention in “treatment as prevention” results from the reduced ability to transmit HIV that results from treatment with antiviral drugs.

    It’s important to note that “treatment as prevention” can refer to two very different situations where infectivity is reduced by treatment. It describes the mathematical model, noted above that was published about a year ago in the Lancet, an influential weekly medical journal, which claims that the AIDS epidemic could be eliminated with regular tests for HIV and the immediate commencement of antiviral treatment of all who are infected. This is the title of the article: “Universal voluntary HIV testing with immediate antiretroviral therapy as a strategy for elimination of HIV transmission: a mathematical model “ (Reuben Granich and colleagues. Lancet 2009 373: 7).

    Antiviral therapy according to this model would be given to all infected individuals whether or not the individual needs treatment. It would include lifelong treatment of healthier HIV infected people who have not been shown to benefit from it, such as those with more intact immune systems as well as those fortunate individuals whose disease does not progress. This is the root of the ethical problem; people who themselves are not known to benefit from treatment will be asked to receive it for a societal benefit. The benefits of treatment to such individuals are conjectural but as the drugs are not free from adverse effects, the risks are real. Unlike individuals with more advanced disease where the benefits of treatment vastly outweigh the risks, this cannot be known in the case of healthier HIV infected individuals.

    This is very different to the analysis of the reduction in transmission of HIV that results from treating only those HIV infected individuals known to benefit from antiviral drugs. This is also referred to as “treatment as prevention” but unfortunately in none of the reports I saw was the distinction made between treatment only of those who benefit from it and treatment of all infected individuals. These two very different meanings of “treatment as prevention” were almost always conflated by commentators which could quite easily convey a mistaken impression that all HIV infected individuals are known to benefit from treatment.

    Treatment must always be voluntary. But a voluntary decision to receive treatment does not mean a great deal if it is uninformed. The decision can most certainly seen to be coerced if misinformation is supplied. HIV infected individuals must be clearly informed about the risks and benefits of the intervention. As already noted, for individuals with more advanced disease, treatment without question provides a net benefit, but this is not known to be the case for HIV infected individuals with more intact immune systems.   There are suggestions that HIV infection may be associated with morbidity resulting from inflammatory reactions.   It is far from firmly established  if this is indeed the case and if it is, whether  it is an inevitable or even common  consequence of HIV infection, or if it can be prevented or treated with antiviral drugs.   It may also prove to be true that, as claimed by some investigators,  the newer antiviral drugs are less toxic than the older ones.  But the full range of their effects, particularly their longer term effects cannot be yet known. HIV disease can manifest in so many different ways that sorting out what is a drug effect from what is an effect of the infection itself may take a long time.

    For healthier HIV infected individuals, the benefits of treatment remain conjectural as long as clinical trials have not been completed that are designed to provide a reliable answer to the question of when in the course of HIV disease it is best to start treatment. Quite remarkably, about fifteen years after potent antiviral drugs became available no such trial has been completed.

    If a decision about whether or not to receive treatment is fully informed, healthier HIV infected individuals faced with an intervention that is accompanied with very real risks but only conjectural benefits may well choose to remain untreated, at least at that particular time in the course of their disease. The purpose of treatment is to reduce infectivity to others, but many might feel that this can be achieved with greater safety, and even possibly with greater reliability, by the use of condoms.  It should be said though that those researchers who point out the prevention benefits of treatment do not suggest that treatment is an alternative to condoms. On the contrary they recommend that treated individuals continue to use condoms.

    Since the objective of treating all infected people is to end the epidemic, this can only be achieved if a large percentage of infected people receive treatment. But faced with a consent form clearly stating what is known about risks and benefits, it is most unlikely that enough healthier HIV infected people will agree to receive treatment. This is but one reason that if a decision to start treatment is properly informed the project is unlikely to enrol enough individuals to achieve its objective. A danger is that treatment of healthier HIV infected people may be claimed to have a net benefit with greater confidence than is warranted with information we presently have.   To succeed, the project also requires a lifetime of adherence to the treatment regimen.  When drugs are taken without confidence that they are of personal benefit, we cannot know how adherence to the regimen will play out.   Failures in this respect will not only diminish the chances that the project will succeed,  they can also result in the emergence of drug resistant strains of HIV which then could limit treatment options when treatment is needed.

    There evidently is a belief that all HIV infected individuals, no matter the stage of disease will benefit from treatment. But this remains just that, a belief, as long as there is no firm evidence to support it. The evidence there is that healthier HIV infected individuals would receive a net benefit from treatment is of inferior quality, and therefore remains insecure. It comes from some retrospective observational studies. In such studies medical records are analyzed to compare outcomes in individuals who started treatment earlier with those who started later. Such studies however are beset with interpretative difficulties. Because individuals were not randomly assigned to start treatment early or later, a particular outcome, say improved survival of those starting treatment early, may result from whatever the reasons were that treatment was started at a particular time.

    The great benefit of randomly assigning individuals to receive one treatment or another when two are compared is the elimination of interpretative  problems that arise when one or the other course of action is chosen.

    The problem of such confounding factors was also discussed in a previous post: http://aidsperspective.net/blog/?p=75

    The retrospective analysis most frequently cited in support of an earlier start to antiviral therapy, the NA-ACCORD study is also discussed in that post.

    HIV infected individuals and those who advise them surely deserve more reliable evidence to support a decision whether to start or defer treatment than that provided by retrospective observational studies or worse, by mere belief.

    Prospective randomized trials remain the best way to achieve this. They minimize bias, and thus misinterpretation, and remain the most reliable way to resolve uncertainty. There is no getting over this. Such trials may be expensive, and last a long time, but in the end, probably more time and money is lost by repeating inconclusive and conflicting retrospective studies. Surely we need to know, and not guess when it is best to start treatment.

    START is a large clinical trial designed to provide an answer to the question of whether it is best to start treatment early or to defer it.     Another casualty of the pursuit of treatment as prevention that aims to treat all infected individuals is enrolment in START which may become more difficult. Those promoting treatment of all infected individuals as prevention must evidently feel that they already know the answer to be that an early start is best. How can this belief be reconciled with a respect for evidence based medicine that many of same experts claim to have?

    We should rather concentrate our efforts on providing treatment to all HIV positive individuals who are at a stage in their disease where treatment is of unquestionable benefit. The fact that treatment reduces their infectivity to others is an added powerful argument to encourage widespread testing. An additional benefit is that people who know their HIV status are more likely to take steps to prevent infection of others.

    The proposal to treat every infected person as a prevention strategy can be criticized on many levels. I have focussed here on the difficulty that arises from including the treatment of individuals not known to benefit from it. This can usefully be linked to support for and encouragement of enrolment in START.

    The lack of concern for the ethical problem that arises from treating people not known to benefit from it is puzzling. A headline on the front page of the UK Independent newspaper reporting on the proposal to treat all infected people states: “AIDS: is the end in sight?”  The report quotes the opinion of one scientist that “the problem is that we are using the drugs to save lives, but we are not using them to stop transmission”   This statement  is quite remarkable.   The real problem arises when we administer drugs that can have adverse effects to people for any reason other than for their benefit.   We can only ask individuals to agree to take risks for a societal benefit if we have good reasons to believe that the endeavour has a good chance of success – in this case the grandiose one of ending the epidemic.  For reasons outlined above we cannot provide any confidence that this will be so.  At any rate many may feel that their societal concerns can be more safely met by using condoms, a proven way to reduce transmission of HIV.

    I also wrote about this issue for the magazine POZ about a month ago. It can be seen by following this link. http://blogs.poz.com/joseph /archives/2010/02/treatment_of_hiv_dis.html

    I also commented on this issue about a year ago. http://aidsperspective.net/blog/?p=152 This post repeats several points that were made then.

  • Despite the SMART study there is a role for intermittent therapy. July, 2009

    Posted on July 9th, 2009 admin No comments

    From where we are at the moment in our understanding of HIV disease, we have to accept that lifelong treatment will be required for most infected individuals..

    The drugs are not free from undesirable effects, they are costly and for many, quality of life is impaired to a greater or lesser extent by taking medications, even a single pill, day after day.

    For these reasons it is important to study ways to safely minimize exposure to these necessary drugs.

    We have potent tools to fight HIV disease but we still do not know how best to use them to achieve the most favourable antiviral effect, while minimizing toxicity and undesirable effects.

    One approach to these objectives – at the moment, perhaps the only viable approach is the study of intermittent therapy as a means to safely reduce exposure to drugs.   This approach will almost definitely not be possible for all HIV infected people needing treatment.  But it may well be possible for most. The cost savings with intermittent therapy could also be substantial.

    This important undertaking was dealt a completely unwarranted setback with the publication of the results of the SMART study, in the New England Journal of Medicine in 20061.  SMART is by far the largest study comparing continuous with intermittent therapy.  In this study more people died in the intermittent treatment arm, not only from AIDS associated events but all cause mortality was increased, including more deaths from cardiovascular disease and from some cancers not previously associated with AIDS.

    The negative effect of SMART on the study of intermittent treatment continues.   In addition, because of the association of an increased number of deaths with intermittent treatment from cardiovascular disease and other conditions not related to HIV disease, the SMART study results have been interpreted by some to indicate that HIV disease includes a much wider spectrum of clinical manifestations than previously thought.  The most favoured, and almost certainly correct explanation for how HIV infection causes heart disease and some other conditions is that they are a consequence of inflammation induced by infection with this virus.

    For a number of reasons, the conclusion that, as a generalization, intermittent therapy is associated with a worse outcome compared to continuous therapy is completely without justification.  The original SMART study report omitted information that brings this conclusion into question; this has been alluded to in a previous post.    Almost all the deaths in the study occurred at US sites, where in contrast to non-US sites multiple co-morbidities were over represented.  As seen in the table below these co morbidities included, among other conditions,  hepatitis B and C, a history of heart disease and  diabetes.  There were even significantly more smokers among those enrolled at US sites.  How can one extrapolate interpretations of observations made in such  individuals  to HIV infected  populations free from these co-morbidities?

    SMART studied just one particular strategy of CD4 guided intermittent therapy, in a population where  multiple non HIV related diseases were overrepresented in US sites, where almost all deaths occurred (79 out of a total of 85 deaths). These conditions included hepatitis B and C,  hypertension, and a previous  history of heart disease   Even setting aside interpretative difficulties concerning this particular study, one can say no more than that the particular strategy of treatment interruption used in SMART, in the population studied, indicated a worse outcome in those randomized to receive intermittent therapy.   That’s all.  The generalizations made about the danger of intermittent treatment were completely unjustified, although enthusiastically endorsed by many community commentators, and repeatedly stressed in educational  literature addressed to physicians.

    Inappropriate generalizations of course apply to other studies of treatment interruptions, which used different criteria for interrupting therapy. All the other studies were smaller than SMART and had different follow up times.  But in all of them the excess mortality observed in SMART was not seen, although in some, morbidity, particularly bacterial infections, was more frequent with intermittent treatment.

    Some examples are the Trivacan study2 which was conducted in a different population using different interruption criteria. There was an excess of bacterial infections in those receiving intermittent therapy but not the excess of deaths noted in SMART.  The Staccato study3,  using a different interruption strategy also did not show the excess mortality seen in SMART in the treatment interruption group.

    The LOTTI study4 concluded that the continuous and intermittent therapy groups could be considered equivalent.  Actually, in complete contradistinction to the SMART results, in this study, cardiovascular disease was actually worse in the continuous therapy group (controls) compared to those receiving intermittent therapy (STI group).  Although pneumonia was more frequent in the STI group.    Here is a sentence from the author’s abstract.

    A higher proportion of patients in the STI arm were diagnosed with pneumonia (P 0.037), whereas clinical events influencing the cardiovascular risk of patients were significantly (P<0.0001) more frequent among controls”.

    The finding regarding cardiovascular disease is particularly relevant.

    Much has been made of the increases in cardiovascular disease seen in the intermittent treatment group in the SMART study.  It is now considered by some that HIV infection per se constitutes a risk for heart disease and this, as noted, is attributed to HIV induced inflammation.   There are even studies now that look at arterial wall thickening as a measure of atherosclerosis and find this to be increased in untreated HIV infected people.  So this needs to be studied.  But in terms of cardiovascular clinical events, LOTTI tells us these are more frequent in people receiving continuous therapy compared to those receiving intermittent treatment.

    Despite evidence to the contrary some “experts” still tell physicians to avoid treatment interruptions in order to protect patient’s cardiovascular health!!

    There are even sponsored courses for physicians for whom CME credit can be earned where instruction is provided to not interrupt treatment precisely because this will increase the risk of heart disease, as well as other problems.

    I was shown an invitation to physicians to a free course offered by a distinguished academic institution.   Among the descriptions of what those attending the course will learn to do is the following:

    “Describe, discuss and apply the data from the SMART study on CHD  (coronary heart disease)  risk associated with ARV treatment interruption and be able to integrate these data into ARV treatment plans and algorithms for HIV-positive patients”

    What is one to make of this in the light of the LOTTI observations?

    This absurdity can only be possible because there is a selective reporting of information to HIV infected people, their advocates and to physicians who are not able to look at all the literature.   As a consequence almost none of the web sites devoted to conveying information to patients and their advocates have even mentioned the LOTTI study.

    As far as cardiovascular disease is concerned those of us who took care of HIV infected patients in the 1980s before effective treatments were available will have observed that people with AIDS characteristically had huge elevations in their serum triglycerides.  They also characteristically had low levels of HDL cholesterol (and of total cholesterol).  I helped a resident in a hospital where I once worked to prepare a report on HDL levels in HIV infected patients before HAART was available.  We used my patient records from the 1980s and were able to clearly show that as the disease progressed over time, HDL levels decreased.    There was, not surprisingly,  a correlation between falling HDL levels and falling CD4 counts – data which I never published, but probably can still find.

    So, there may indeed be something in the connection between untreated HIV disease and heart disease.  In the early days possibly our patients did not survive long enough to manifest any clinical manifestation of heart disease.   Increased triglycerides are an independent risk factor for coronary heart disease.  There even was a possible mechanism for this that was known in those days that could account for this.

    Untreated individuals with more advanced disease have high serum levels of alpha interferon (also increased levels of gamma interferon) and TNF alpha, and both of these cytokines can inhibit an enzyme called lipoprotein lipase that then results in the lipid changes noted.  Such changes have been seen in people with hepatitis C treated with recombinant interferon.

    So, why is the failure of just one form of intermittent therapy used to categorically condemn the practice in principle?   There are numerous different ways in which intermittent therapy can be structured.

    The discouragement of the study of intermittent therapy is even more peculiar in view of the different outcomes of other, albeit,  studies smaller  than SMART

    Perhaps a clue is to be found in a sentence in the LOTTI study report.

    Here it is:

    “The mean daily therapeutic cost was 20.29 euros  for controls and dropped to 9.07 euros  in the STI arm (P<0.0001)”.

    This more or less translates into a 50% reduction in drug sales to people receiving intermittent treatment according to the LOTTI protocol.

    Taking other studies of intermittent therapy into account, and considering some problems associated with SMART, I believe that one can say with a resounding affirmative that, in principle , intermittent therapy can be safe. Not for all, and maybe not for all of the time, but probably for many HIV infected individuals with over 350 CD4 lymphocytes who need treatment (who such individuals may be is also a controversial issue particularly regarding individuals with over 350 CD4 lymphocytes),   some form of intermittent therapy will probably be demonstrated to be safe.  For individuals with at least 700 CD4 lymphocytes, this is already the case.

    Many of my patients wanted to take “treatment holidays” as they were once called; some from time to time, and others on some regular basis.  I have always believed that we need to find ways where we can safely minimize drug exposure so I was supportive of their wishes, as long as some conditions were met and we had the means to monitor viral load and CD4 counts.   This desire for treatment interruptions  was obviously  true not only among my patients but it seemed quite common in New York City to hear of individuals who were receiving some form of intermittent treatment, and this must also be the case elsewhere.

    Of course for individuals with CD4 counts below 200, this was not a good idea.   Whatever we did, we knew that we needed to keep the CD4 count above this level. So, for patients with higher CD4 counts a variety of strategies were used.

    There will be many anecdotes accumulated over the years of such experiences of intermittent treatment.   I need to stress that these are just anecdotes and most definitely not formal studies.  As such they can only lead to hypotheses on which studies can be based.

    It would be foolhardy for HIV infected individuals to interrupt treatment without the advice and close supervision of an experienced physician. I have seen too many individuals who have come to harm by stopping their medications completely on their own, without supervision and not even informing their physicians that treatment was stopped.  This at least indicates that there is such a thing as “pill fatigue”, something we cannot ignore.

    Of my patients who interrupted treatment none have come to harm.  There was no established protocol to guide us and strategies used took patient preference into account.    An effective antiviral combination, one that has produced sustained suppression, at least as indicated by an undetectable viral load should work again if stopped and re started later. There may be some theoretical difficulty in abruptly stopping antivirals that are slowly eliminated without additional temporary cover.   As a result, in certain patients some form of episodic treatment was used, that is periods on treatment alternating with periods off treatment.  This approach is now generally considered to be unsafe and CD4 guided strategies are studied.   But numerous anecdotes as well as earlier studies of episodic treatment indicate that this approach can be viable in some situations, and I believe should be further studied.

    In an editorial in the journal reporting the LOTTI study Bernard Herschel and Timothy Flanagan state.

    “Many of our patients with high CD4 cell counts want to

    stop treatment. The LOTTI study does not justify a

    recommendation in that regard, but it does give clinicians

    useful information that it is probably safe to stop

    treatment within the limits of CD4 cell counts of

    LOTTI. Continued vigilance is needed so that excellent

    adherence is maintained when patients are on HAART

    to prevent the emergence of resistance.

    The LOTTI study adds important information to the

    continued question of whether there is a role for

    interrupted therapy. Further study is justified, particularly

    with newer combination therapies, which may well

    have less toxicity and therefore shift the balance towards

    continuous treatment. Clinicians will welcome the

    information from LOTTI because it can allay some of

    the concerns regarding the safety of treatment interruptions

    at high CD4 cell counts”.

    In the LOTTI trial, treatment was restarted when the CD4 count dropped  to 350 and stopped at a CD4 count of  700.  So within these limits we have some reassurance of safety.

    So, further study is absolutely warranted.

    In the LOTTI study, participants had to have a CD4 count of 700.

    What about individuals who have had  undetectable viral loads for six months (as in LOTTI) but whose CD4 count has remained stable at 500, or 450 or some number lower than 700?    Studies with different CD4 criteria should continue and not be deterred by the SMART results.

    I have written about the need to work on ways to individualize therapy to take individual rates of disease progression as well as other individual characteristics into consideration.   That is to get away from the prevailing  one size fits all approach to therapy,  mainly using a snapshot of just one or two parameters,  the CD4 count and viral load to guide one, without considering the rate of change in  CD4 numbers.

    In the same way, studies to individualize intermittent treatment interupptions in those for whom it is possible should be considered.   As noted, if an antiviral regimen is effective in fully suppressing replication – at least to the extent indicated by an undetectable viral load, there is absolutely no reason why it should not be effective again if stopped. There may be some consideration needed regarding how to stop with some drugs that are eliminated very slowly.   (Of course an individual may be super infected with a drug resistant variant).

    It is likely that some form of episodic treatment may be effective in selected individuals.   That is, periods on treatment alternating with periods off treatment.   Because of its flexibility it is probably best suited to individualization.

    As mentioned, this approach has been thought to be more dangerous than a CD4 guided strategy.  But this approach appeared to be effective in earlier studies but they have not had long periods of follow up5.   But other similar studies have shown a high rate of viral rebound6.

    However, the fact that there has been a successful study and the many anecdotes of successful episodic types of intermittent therapy provide encouragement that it is worthwhile to continue to study such an approach.

    It certainly is possible to study the characteristics of those individuals in whom such an approach has proven to be successful.

    I conclude with a few more comments on the SMART study with a possible explanation for the huge discrepancy in the number of deaths in US sites, 79, compared to only 6 in non US sites.   At least there is a very clear reason why the results observed in this study should not be generalized to all HIV infected individuals.

    The study was conducted in US sites on what appear to have been a group of individuals in whom disorders unrelated to HIV were overrepresented.  As mentioned earlier, these disorders include diabetes, hepatitis B and C, high blood pressure and a history of heart disease.

    Look at this table, which has been copied from a report on a SMART follow on study of inflammation in trial participants7.

    This table shows characteristics of individuals who died compared to those who did not.

    Kuller 2

    The 85 people who died are represented in the third column, and their characteristics have been compared to those of two individuals who did not die (controls).

    It can be seen that of the people who died, compared to those who did not, 11.8%  vs  4.7% had a history of heart disease (p=0.04);  45.9% vs 24.1%  were co infected with Hepatitis B or C  (p = 0.0008); 57.6% vs 31.8% were current smokers (p = 0.0001); 25.9% vs 14.7% were diabetic (p = 0.03); 38.8% vs 25.3% were taking medications for high blood pressure (p = 0.02).

    Thus the people who died in the SMART study tended to be sick with non HIV related conditions.  64% of them were in the treatment interruption group so this tells us that individuals who already have more traditional risk factors may increase their risk of death by interrupting treatment according to the schedule defined in SMART.

    But there is another remarkable figure in this table.  92.9 % of those who died were participants in US sites!  I have already written about this – that of the 85 deaths in SMART, 79 occurred in US sites with 55% of participants, and only 6 people died in sites outside the US where 45% of individuals were enrolled.

    Despite what some experts incessantly tell us, SMART cannot justifiably be used to conclude that intermittent treatment is dangerous, in principle,  for all HIV infected individuals, particularly with additional information that for some reason, has only been made available less than a year ago.

    The original report of the SMART study in the New England Journal of medicine in 2006 reported the baseline characteristics of participants.  All of these baseline characteristics, including co morbidities and traditional risk factors for heart disease such as hypertension and smoking were about the same in both treatment groups – that is, in those receiving continuous therapy and those on the treatment interruption arm.   However the distribution of these characteristics in those who died was not reported in this publication.  We had to wait until October 2008 to learn that those who died already had more multiple health problems unrelated to HIV infection.

    I missed seeing this 2008 publication.  It seems that most who saw it had little to say.  But the strange distribution of deaths was brought to attention again with comments in the Lancet Infectious Disease in April of this year8.   I did not miss it this time, and have already written about it.

    Because of the deleterious and unwarranted influence of SMART in discouraging the study of intermittent therapy, I thought it was absolutely important to make this information as widely known as possible.   Without further explanation, these results indicating the greater extent of co morbidities and traditional risk factors among those who died bring the often repeated conclusion  that the SMART study indicates that treatment interruptions are unsafe for all,  into question.

    To my great surprise, despite my best efforts to disseminate this information on the strange distribution of deaths during the study, there was almost no expression of interest from the many individuals I communicated with.

    This lack of interest is really puzzling.

    Despite what might be considered to be an inappropriate generalization of the results, particularly regarding the relationship of HIV infection to deaths from causes unrelated to HIV infection the SMART study was a massive undertaking and its completion should be seen as a triumph.

    Organizing such a huge endeavour that was dispersed so widely is a tremendous achievement.  There are sub studies and follow on studies that continue and will advance our understanding of HIV disease.

    We know with some security from SMART that HIV infected individuals with Hepatitis B and C,   hypertension, and a past history of heart disease and some other associated health problems would increase their risk of death by interrupting treatment for HIV according to the strategy used in SMART.

    For otherwise healthy HIV infected individuals it is likely that for some, unfortunately not for all,   a form of treatment interruption will be demonstrated to be safe.  This can already be said for those meeting the conditions of the participants in the LOTTI trial.

    The original report of the SMART study was published in the New England Journal of medicine in 2006.

    http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/355/22/2283

    ———————————————————————————————————————–

    Refs

    1:    New England Journal of medicine    2006  355:2283-2296

    2:    Trivacan(ANRS 1269)    Lancet  2006  367:1981-1989

    3:    Staccato                           Lancet 2006   368: 459-465

    4:    LOTTI                                AIDS     2009   23:799-807

    5:     Proceedings National Academy of Sciences   2001   98: 15161-6

    6:      AIDS  2003    17:2257-2258

    7:      Kuller et al.   PLoS  Oct. 2008   5(10): e203

    8:      The Lancet Infectious Diseases  2009 Vol 9 Issue 5 268-9

  • Endemic Infections in Africa have everything to do with HIV/AIDS and are a long neglected therapeutic target.

    Posted on June 6th, 2009 admin 1 comment

    An article with the striking title “Africa’s 32 Cents Solution for HIV/AIDS” was just published in PLoS Neglected Tropical Diseases.  It can be seen here:

    http://www.plosntds.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pntd.0000430

    This dramatic title refers to the cost of treatment of schistosomiasis with praziquantal.

    Schistosomiasis is an infection caused by parasitic worms, or helminths., of the genus  Schistosoma.    Most of the 200 million cases of schistosomiasis in the world occur in Africa.

    The species, Schistosoma haematobium is estimated to infect about 112 million people in sub Saharan Africa.  So its high prevalence puts it in the same class as that of TB, malaria and HIV.  It is responsible for a huge burden of morbidity particularly in children and young adults.

    S. haematobium  has a complicated life cycle, some of which takes place in snails.  People are infected by organisms released by snails living in fresh water. These organisms can penetrate the skin of any body part that is immersed in snail infested water.  S. haematobium affects the urinary tract.  The disease it causes is commonly called bilharzia.

    I was very conscious of its danger as a child growing up in Zimbabwe, with signs at several small lakes around Bulawayo warning one not to swim in them because of the danger of bilharzia.

    Peter Hotez and colleagues article is a welcome addition to the already substantial literature that strongly suggests that many endemic infections, not only with helminths, but also with bacteria, protozoa and viruses can increase the transmission of HIV and most probably  have a detrimental effect on the course of HIV infection.

    This paper concentrates on the local effects of S.haematobium on the female genital tract , where lesions caused by  schistosome egg deposition result in mucosal patches, that can bleed during sexual intercourse. The authors state “Presumably, the schistosome egg granulomas produce genital lesions and mucosal barrier breakdown to facilitate HIV viral entry” and go on to compare this to the process by which herpes simplex ulcers increase susceptibility to HIV.

    This does seem obvious – there is a mucosal break, so HIV has a way in.

    In fact in the case of herpes simplex, this seemingly obvious connection is probably not correct.   The large Partners in Prevention study, recently completed, found that acyclovir, a drug effective in treating herpes does not reduce the risk of HIV transmission.  The drug however was associated with a reduction in the number of recurrences of herpetic ulcerations, and significantly slowed HIV disease progression.  I have written about this in another post.

    As with herpes simplex, it is possible that systemic effects of schistosomiasis, may be much more significant, or at least as significant, as local effects in enhancing the transmission of HIV.    Of course, both local and systemic effects may play a role in enhancing HIV transmission.  The systemic effects include an impairment of virus specific immune responses; immune activation may also increase susceptibility to HIV and promote its replication.

    The influence of associated infections on the infectivity of HIV extends far beyond that of schistosomiasis.  Peter Hotez  (the lead author of the above article) has done a great service by bringing attention to a number of devastating neglected tropical diseases.  This important article can be seen in the Lancet of May 2nd, 2009, (Lancet 2009 373;1570-1575).

    The title of the article is:

    “Rescuing the bottom billion through control of neglected tropical diseases”

    By Peter J Hotez, Alan Fenwick, Lorenzo Savioli and David Molyneux

    I have copied this table from the above article:

    tropical

    These are incredibly huge numbers.

    Many of these infections occur in children and young adults and not only  have an impact on life expectancy, but significantly are the cause of chronic debility particularly in young people.

    Some also have an activating effect on HIV replication by several mechanisms, some of which  have been understood for well over ten years.  The resulting acceleration of HIV infection,  by  increasing  HIV viral loads,  as well as by other mechanisms increases the transmission of this virus.

    The health of hundreds of millions of individuals could be improved by efforts to prevent and treat these infections.  These infections are also appropriate therapeutic targets in the fight against HIV/AIDS.

    Despite a great deal of evidence for the interaction of multiple bacterial, viral, protozoal and helminthic infections and HIV,  this association has been inexplicably neglected in providing  additional approaches to controlling the epidemic..

    I had what might be described as a  misfortune to have been a member of President Mbeki’s panel on AIDS, an almost surreal experience I should write about.  The following is an excerpt from something I wrote for this panel almost 10 years ago:

    “The crucial difference in Africa, as opposed to the US, is the high prevalence of associated infections. These include STDs, TB, malaria and other protozoal infections, helminthic and bacterial  infections. Such infections would supply sustained signals, such as IL-1  IL-6 and TNF, known to activate HIV.  Some can also upregulate the expression of chemokine co receptors required for HIV entry.  Some of these infections are  somewhat immunosuppressive themselves, an effect contributed to by the secretion of IL-10.37 Sexual transmission of HIV is also known to be facilitated by a high viral burden.38 This would also be the consequence of the HIV activating effect of frequent associated infections in Africa.”

    This was almost 10 years ago, and since then literature has continued to accumulate documenting the detrimental interactions between HIV and multiple infectious agents.

    About two years ago I made a presentation at the Prevention Research Center at Berkeley, trying to understand why endemic diseases had been so neglected in our attempts to control AIDS, particularly in Africa.  I thought that part of the problem was poor interdisciplinary communication and understanding.   Specifically, there might be difficulties in   communications between public health experts and microbiologists.   Possible public health implications of the findings of microbiologists might not be perceived without additional explanation.  I illustrated this with a specific article.

    I used an excellent article to illustrate this problem.

    The article is called “Contribution of Immune Activation to the Pathogenesis and transmission of HIV type 1 infection” and the authors are Stephen Lawn, Salvatore Butera and Thomas Folks.   (Clinical Microbiology Reviews. Oct 2001 14; 753-777)

    This is part of what I said in California  in trying to illustrate the difficulty in communication:

    “Of great interest – because of its implications for disease control was the discovery that other infections, viral, bacterial, protozoal and helminthic, could influence the course of HIV disease.  Generally the effect was to enhance HIV replication, but a few seemed to ameliorate – at least temporarily, the course of infection.  Scrub typhus, measles and perhaps a form of viral hepatitis, may have a  transient beneficial effect on HIV disease, but these are exceptional cases. Most co-infections have the opposite effect.

    We now come to an example of observations made by microbiologists and work done at a molecular level with enormous implications for the control of AIDS in Africa.   This example is a review (cited above)  explaining in great technical detail how the replication of HIV can be enormously enhanced by concurrent endemic infections, and how this not only accelerates the progression of HIV disease, but also facilitates its transmission. The authors show in molecular detail how many viral, bacterial, protozoan and helminthic infections can affect HIV replication.  Included among these are common intestinal worms and water borne bacterial infections, causing severe diarrhea particularly in infants.  The discussion is largely concerned with the possible beneficial effect of drugs that might counteract this enhancement of HIV replication. There is one short sentence on public health interventions that might eliminate this problem altogether. It is of particular interest because of its brevity in a rather long article.   There is also a curious statement that where antiretroviral drugs are unavailable, measures to control endemic infections may be a useful approach.  This comment is reproduced below, and somehow ignores the significance of the implication that control of these endemic infections requires no other justification than as a measure to control AIDS.

    This paper, because of its immunological and molecular detail is not too likely to find its way to an epidemiologist or public health expert,  but for one trained in these technicalities, I would suppose the public health implications would be immediately evident.

    This particular paper also is a great illustration of the compartmentalization of information, and the difficulties of interdisciplinary communication.

    Below is an illustration from the body of the article: there is much more just like this.  A person with no training in molecular biology or virology would not be likely to spend any time with this illustration.

    lawn1

    However if one turned a few pages the following diagram may just be of some interest. But again this is unlikely.

    The part that would be of interest to a public health professional , if noted,  is contained in the large arrow at the bottom right of the illustration.  In this rather complex diagram it would be quite easy for the public health expert to be sufficiently distracted so that the bottom right hand corner would be easily missed.

    lawn21

    There is a long discussion, quite technical in nature, but at least the authors find space for the following brief comment.

    “Prevention and Treatment of Coinfections

    The widespread use of HAART in the treatment of HIV-

    infected persons in westernized countries has resulted in a

    phenomenal decrease in the incidence of opportunistic infec-

    tions and has greatly increased survival. For these individuals,

    the antiretroviral drugs are the major determinant of prognosis

    and the potential cofactor effect of opportunistic infections is

    now a more minor consideration. However, the vast majority

    (>95%) of the world’s HIV-infected people do not currently

    have access to antiretroviral drugs. Most of these people live in

    developing countries, where the quality and access to health

    care is often limited and where there is a high incidence of

    endemic infectious diseases such as malaria, TB, and infections

    by helminths and waterborne pathogens which may adversely

    affect HIV-1 disease progression. Prevention or early treat-

    ment of these diseases may therefore represent an important

    strategy in addressing the HIV-1 epidemic in developing coun-

    tries”. –

    In the above quotation, the authors are overoptimistic in their assertion that the cofactor effect of opportunistic infections is now a more minor consideration in developed countries.  Valacyclovir, a drug that inhibits the replication of  many members of the herpes virus group, but has no direct effect on HIV was reported to reduce HIV viral loads in the absence of antiretroviral therapy. In the developed world, active herpes virus infections are common in the setting of HIV infection, although most will be asymptomatic. For example, Cytomegalovirus, Epstein Barr Virus and Human herpes virus type 6 are not infrequently found to be active in HIV infected individuals. Valacyclovir will have an effect on these viruses, and may well find a place in the treatment of HIV infection in developed countries.  Indeed it may not be uncommon for experienced physicians here (in the US) to prescribe related anti herpes medications to their HIV infected patients. I certainly do.

    There is another aspect, a little more difficult to establish and perhaps altogether conjectural.  This is that we are presented with the question of why we need AIDS to justify interventions that have long been established to themselves improve the health of populations.  These include the provision of sanitation and clean water, the control of malaria and TB, and something as simple as getting rid of worms.  In the public’s assessment of the health needs of developing countries the information that is used is largely to be found in popular media, newspapers, magazines and TV.  Those who report in turn receive information from professional sources, and maybe it is here that the interdisciplinary barriers to communication I have been talking about have their effect. Thus the AIDS epidemic is perceived to be the greatest threat to the future of Africa, even though malaria kills more people, and common endemic infections contribute to an abysmal life expectancy.   (This was written 2-3 years ago and was probably incorrect even at that time;  estimates are that today there are  1.5-2 million deaths from AIDS in Africa, with close to 1 million deaths from malaria.  Malaria though  is responsible for a greater  number of deaths in children under 5 years of age).

    It continues to be remarkable that although evidence has existed for years that many of these infections can interact with HIV infection to increase its infectivity and accelerate disease progression, those who advocate for, and allocate funds to fight HIV/AIDS seem oblivious to the relevance and implications of these interactions.

    This effort of course needs absolutely no justification, but its funding is small compared to the resources that have been made available to combat HIV/AIDS –  but from all that has been described funding for these endemic infections is in fact also funding to fight HIV/AIDS “.

    Those were comments made 2-3 years ago.

    While malaria and tuberculosis are now receiving attention and are included with AIDS in some programs,   many other endemic infections  continue to be neglected.

    Going back much further in time,  interest in the activating effects of associated infections on HIV replication began within the first 10 years of the epidemic.  This started with the demonstration that proinflammatory cytokines, TNF alpha or IL 6, for example could greatly accelerate HIV replication.

    Of course these cytokines appear in the course of many different infections.  When viral load tests became available this effect was well understood by patients and physicians in N America and Europe. It became common wisdom that an HIV infected person who had a febrile illness, or had even received a flu vaccine  should delay viral load testing because the infection or vaccination was frequently associated with temporary rises in HIV viral loads.

    The implications for geographic areas where the infections were far from temporary seemed to escape notice.

    Thus endemic infections in Africa do have everything to do with HIV/AIDS.  There are numerous preventative and therapeutic measures available to control many of these infections,  and some are inexpensive.  Even something as simple as deworming may be useful.  Ascaris lumbricoides, the common intestinal round worm also is associated with immune activation and is easily got rid of.  There is a report that doing this with a drug called albendazole actually raised CD4 counts. (Walson JL et al. Albendazole treatment of HIV-1 and helminth co-infection: a randomized, double-blind, placebo-controlled trial. AIDS 22:1601-1609, 2008).

    The person who has been studying immune activation and the association of parasitic infestations and AIDS for the longest time is  Zvi Bentwich.   I can’t remember when his first  publication on this issue appeared but by the mid 1990s he was publishing on this association in Ethiopian immigrants to Israel.   Zvi Bentwich deserves the greatest credit for his early recognition of the importance of this association, its significance regarding immune activation and for his continuing contributions.   He pointed out the relevance of schistosomiasis to AIDS  (and TB) at least 10 years ago.

    The connection of so many endemic infections with AIDS  in Africa is also a connection of poverty with AIDS.  I saw an absurd and instantly forgettable paper entitled something like “Poverty does not cause AIDS” a few years ago.    Of course poverty is not the direct  cause of ascariasis,  schistosomiasis, tuberculosis, or any number of devastating infections.  Poverty is a very significant factor in  the acquisition of these infections, and as such can certainly be regarded as having a causative role.

    The lives of impoverished populations are ravaged and shortened by these infections. Many of these infections also interact with HIV to compound the devastation they cause.  Poverty, multiple endemic infections and HIV are intimately intertwined and in many instances reciprocally affect each other.  For example the debility associated with schistosomiasis has an impact on an individual’s productivity, with economic consequences not only for the individual but for the larger community.

    Controlling the AIDS epidemic in Africa must also include measures to prevent and treat the multiple endemic infections that affect hundreds of millions of individuals.

    To conclude this post I want to recommend a book published about four years ago by Eileen Stillwaggon, a professor of economics.  It is called “AIDS and the ecology of poverty” and is published by the Oxford University Press.

  • Treatment as Prevention: Protecting individual autonomy. May 2010

    Posted on May 18th, 2009 admin 2 comments

    I’m returning to this topic yet again because the French National Commission on HIV/AIDS has now published a statement on treatment as prevention.

    This document discusses treatment as prevention at the individual and the population level together.

    It  places great importance on individual autonomy, which includes the fundamental right individuals have to make decisions on their own behalf.   I have come to see the issues in a somewhat  different way after reading the French document.

    This document can be seen here:

    http://www.cns.sante.fr/spip.php?article296&lang=en

    It is worth mentioning again that the term “treatment as prevention” can be applied to two different situations.

    At an individual level  it refers to prevention of HIV transmission by sexual contact between two individuals. The Swiss statement concentrated on this aspect.

    The term is also applied at a population level, where the goal of treatment as prevention is  the control of the epidemic, even as suggested by some,  a means to end it.

    The principle underlying the proposals to use treatment as prevention in both of these situations is the same.  It is the reduction in infectivity that results from the effect of antiretroviral therapy.

    Unlike the Swiss recommendations that dealt only with transmission between two individuals, the French statement deals with both aspects.

    Treatment as prevention is not the same when applied to individuals as opposed to populations.  For example, transmission between some individuals may be interrupted by treatment without having an effect on the epidemic.

    To have an impact on the epidemic additional factors that do not apply at an individual level have to be considered.

    For example, the number of infected people who must be treated in relation to the total number of people who are infected must be taken into account, if treatment is to have an effect on the epidemic.

    For treatment as prevention to have a greater effect on the epidemic, a larger proportion of infected people must be treated.

    Canadian studies have suggested that the proportion of infected people who must be treated in order to reduce transmission would need to be increased from 50% to 75%.   Transmission would be slowed but not reversed with treatment rates below 50%.

    Thus the percentage of infected people who are treated is related to the extent of the impact treatment will have on the epidemic.

    At an extreme, if the stated objective is to end the epidemic, as has been proposed by some,  the proportion of infected people who would need to be  treated would be so large that it would have to include those who do not need treatment for their own benefit.

    [ Added October 3, 2010:     It appears that there are experts who believe that everybody who is HIV infected, no matter at what stage of their disease would benefit from treatment.  For them, there would be no ethical problem at al.   These experts believe that treatment benefits every HIV infected individual. But the practice of medicine is not a faith-based enterprise, although I imagine individuals holding this belief  probably pay lip service to evidence-based medicine.  As opposed to a belief that everyone will benefit from treatment there is no evidence of the best quality  that for  people with greater than 350 CD4 lymphocytes, the benefits of antiviral drugs will outweigh their risks.    Hopefully the START trial will provide the evidence needed to help HIV infected individuals and their health care providers make a decision as to when it’s best to start treatment, that will be informed with hard evidence rather than belief based interpretations of data.   The San Francisco Department of Public Health now recommends that all HIV infected individuals receive treatment.  so they are able to  avoid having to deal with the ethical problem that arises  in recommending treatment to people not known to derive a net benefit from doing so as they too rely on their belief that all benefit.   For individuals starting treatment at higher CD4 numbers the harms caused  by the drugs may outweigh their benefits.  Such individuals may choose to receive  treatment in order to make them less infectious, but surely respect for their autonomy means that we must provide them with evidence of the best quality so that their choice is informed, and this also means that where the best evidence is not yet available on when it’s best to start treatment we must tell them that this is the case.    The concern expressed last May about the threat of coercion may have been justified in the light of the San Francisco Department of Public Health’s recommendations.  While it is perfectly legitimate and even expected of them, health care providers make recommendations based on their judgement, which in turn depends on the knowledge and experience they have.  This is why we turn to experts.   But their respect for individual autonomy really requires that where evidence of the best quality does not yet exist to justify their recommendation, and where there is no expert consensus  on the issue, that these facts be told to the individual.  A failure to do so in making the recommendation, can be seen as being coercive.  Consenting to the recommendation will  not be fully  informed, and in this way the individual’s autonomy is not respected.]

    I have written about the multitude of problems arising from this situation in previous posts on this topic.  Lurking behind such an extreme proposal is the threat of coercion, and the possibility of an infringement of individual rights. Very disappointingly this aspect has been barely acknowledged in English language discussions of treatment as prevention.

    However if, as I believe,  an additional  goal of treating  infected people is to add a powerful tool to prevent transmission, we are then not stating an objective that would require the participation of individuals who do not themselves need treatment.

    Admittedly, treating only those who need to be treated may not have such a great impact as also treating additional infected people who do not need treatment.  Therefore we must  also intensify and improve  our efforts at targeted prevention education with the promotion of condom use.

    But we will avoid the insuperable problems and threats to personal autonomy associated with  treating individuals who do not need to be treated for their own benefit.

    The goal of treatment as prevention as applied to controlling the epidemic is perhaps better stated in a different way.

    It might be preferable to simply state that the goal is to provide treatment to every individual who needs it.  This goal must therefore be coupled with enhanced efforts to facilitate regular testing.

    If we can achieve this it is likely that not only will the individual benefit, but there will be an impact on the extent of the epidemic.

    There is evidence of a reduction in HIV transmission in areas where antiretroviral treatment has been introduced. .

    When we emphasize that our efforts are to identify infected individuals and make treatment available to all who need it, we eliminate all the problems connected with treating infected individuals who do not need treatment.

    One reason why the French document is so significant is that it stresses the importance of individual autonomy.

    It emphasizes the need to respect individual rights and adds a caution to avoid the temptation to employ  coercive measures in the name of the public good.  Testing is the key to any success of this approach to prevention, but testing must be voluntary and informed. As of course is a decision to receive treatment.

    Here is an excerpt from the French statement that shows the concern for individual autonomy and recognizes that there is a potential threat of the employment of coercive measures.

    ” if screening and massively treating infected persons enables to reduce the epidemic, it could be tempting to consider population compulsory systematic screening and to voice more or less insistent summons for the treatment of persons identified as HIV positive. Should public authorities use all convenient means to implement efficient policies that strengthen screening, they need to be careful not to yield to such fallacious reasoning. The issue of improving screening efficiency surely does not invalidate any of the reasons that have hitherto prevailed for rejecting compulsory screening. Keeping screening hinged on free and informed consent remains a matter of respecting the fundamental right of the person; it is at the same time an obligation even from the public health viewpoint,

    Pursuing a probably completely unworkable attempt to end the epidemic by yearly testing and treating everyone infected as has been suggested by some, is wrong. The problems of feasibility, adherence, resistance, and the threats to individual autonomy cannot be overcome.

    Instead we should:

    Offer treatment to all who need it.

    Facilitate testing, identifying and removing barriers that impede it.

    Intensify and improve our efforts at targeted prevention education.

    Promote condom use and make them available.

    There is a final issue.

    Who needs to be treated?  Certainly everyone with a CD4 count below 200.  Apart from this we do not know, so until we obtain some guidance from prospective randomized studies, it is prudent, in general, to not delay treatment to a CD4 count below 350 as is currently recommended.

  • The Not So SMART Study

    Posted on April 27th, 2009 admin 2 comments

    I have borrowed this title from a comment in the journal, Lancet Infectious Diseases, entitled “Not so Smart?” by Justin Stebbing and Angus Dalgleish.

    The SMART study as many will recall was a randomized comparison of two antiretroviral treatment strategies.

    HIV infected individuals were randomized to receive either  continuous antiviral treatment or to receive it intermittently while the CD4 count had fallen below 250. This trial received a tremendous amount of publicity.  Deaths from all causes – including those that were not obviously related to HIV infection, were significantly increased in the group that were treated intermittently.  This seemed to dampen enthusiasm for treatment interruptions and brought attention to a possible relationship between HIV infection and deaths from causes previously not associated with it.

    5,472 patients participated in this study at 318 sites in 33 countries.

    There were a total of 85 deaths in the study.

    79 of these 85 deaths occurred in the US where 55% of the patients were randomized.

    There were only 6 deaths among the 45% of patients randomized in countries outside the US.

    .

    It would seem that treatment interruptions are quite safe, as long as they occur in countries outside the US.

    Did I miss this information in the original report of the study published in 2006?

    There were numerous discussions of the SMART study on websites and newsletters addressed to HIV infected people and their health care providers.  Did I miss those that reported on the fact that only 6 of the 85 deaths occurred in countries outside the US?

    Of course I looked at the original report again but could not find this information – perhaps it was buried in a supplementary appendix?

    For some reason, it seems that the authors of the report on the SMART study did not feel it necessary to draw attention to this information – at least not with the prominence that it deserved, if it was mentioned at all.

    Most of the deaths on the study were not from AIDS associated opportunistic infections or malignancies.

    With a presumption (maybe this  suggestion is too harsh) that despite this, the deaths were indeed related to HIV,  a possible relationship with this virus was sought. One obvious possibility of connecting these deaths with HIV was by linking them with the inflammation that is associated with HIV disease.

    Thus, as a follow up to the SMART study, various markers of inflammation were looked at in both groups, and not surprisingly these were increased in the group with the most deaths, those receiving intermittent treatment rather than continuous treatment. As mentioned almost all of these deaths were confined to the US.

    So, what we have is the observation that people who were to die within a relatively short period had increases in markers of inflammation. Of these, D-dimer, CRP and IL 6 had already been associated with all cause mortality, even in people not infected with HIV.

    With respect to the cardiovascular deaths in the study, here is a quotation from PM Ridker:  “In apparently healthy men, elevated levels of IL-6 are associated with increased risk of future MI. These data thus support a role for cytokine-mediated inflammation in the early stages of atherogenesis”.

    IL-6 is a pro inflammatory cytokine and levels were increased in those receiving intermittent therapy.  IL-6 promotes HIV replication,  and can be produced by HIV infected cells but also by many other stimuli.

    So IL 6, which is associated with atherogenesis,  also directly increases the replication of HIV.  IL 6 secretion is increased by numerous and diverse factors. For example bacterial toxins induce IL 1 which in turn stimulates IL 6 release and  hepatitis C virus core proteins induce IL 6.  HIV infected cells can also release IL 6.

    But with so many different agents able to do this it is difficult to attribute IL 6 production to HIV.  This is of course muddied by the fact that whatever stimulates IL 6 secretion, IL 6 itself will accelerate the replication of HIV.

    But possibly the most intriguing feature of the report of this follow up study  is the first sentence of the Results section:

    “Most of the deaths (79 of 85) occurred in the US”.

    Having made this rather startling statement, the authors never return to it.  It remains undiscussed,  as if it is of no consequence!

    Are we to believe that intermittent therapy with antiviral agents  promotes inflammation with its lethal consequences only in the US?

    The outcome measurement of the SMART study included death from all causes. Only 8% were the result of opportunistic disease.

    There were 16 deaths from cancer ( 11 in the intermittent therapy(IT) group and 5 in the continuous therapy group(CT)), 11 deaths from cardiovascular   disease  (7, IT, 4,  CT);

    8 people died from substance abuse, 7 from violence.

    18 deaths were from causes that could not be determined. Of these 18, 15 occurred in those on intermittent treatment and only 3 in those receiving continuous treatment.  This last rather large difference leads one to ask if it is possible that the two groups were treated differently. At least, in the US, where almost all the deaths occurred.

    This may seem like an outrageous question. But unintentional bias in unblinded studies cannot be ignored and I will return to this.

    Many of the deaths reported –  certainly far from all, were caused by  conditions that might have been ameliorated by appropriate medical care ( this does not only mean from the point of view of the physician. The patient is also involved – for example, were medical visits made? Did the patient pay attention to symptoms? Was there compliance with prescribed treatment?)

    With almost all of the mortality confined to the US,  it looks like something else must be at play here, something other than the antiretroviral treatment strategies, and the first place to look is the overall quality of medical care – which,as mentioned, includes issues that may entirely be related to the patient – such as poor compliance with recommendations, despite adequate support.

    There are two distinct  questions to be asked.

    Firstly,  why was there such  a difference  in  the trial outcomes between US and non US sites?

    Secondly, in the US can we reliably attribute the differences in outcomes in the two treatment arms to the differences in the antiviral treatment strategies?

    The first two questions one would ask in trying to explain the difference between 6 deaths and 79 deaths is related to the quality of general medical care in the US as compared to the non US countries, and then to possible differences in the patient populations.   The patient populations may have differed for example in the extent of co- morbidities,  and in the degree of compliance with recommended treatments.

    But  I don’t know that one can come up with an answer about the quality of medical care.   We must assume that there were probably no great differences.  However there was some information on co- morbidities such as Hepatitis b and C,  but not enough to attribute the differences in the number of deaths to this factor.  [Note`added on April 4 2010. The difference in co-morbidities is in fact probably  the reason for the striking difference in mortality between US and non US sites. Here is a link to a later post where a table is reproduced  from the paper describing the mortality difference referenced below. The population enrolled in US sites, where most of  the deaths occurred,  were much more likely to suffer from non HIV related health problems than those enrolled in non US sites.  Here are two sentences from the later post:  ”The study was conducted in US sites on what appear to have been a group of individuals in whom disorders unrelated to HIV were overrepresented.  As mentioned earlier, these disorders include diabetes, hepatitis B and C, high blood pressure and a history of heart disease:

    I conclude with a few more comments on the SMART study with a possible explanation for the huge discrepancy in the number of deaths in US sites, 79, compared to only 6 in non US sites.   At least there is a very clear reason why the results observed in this study should not be generalized to all HIV infected individuals”. This current entry on the SMART study, which I’m leaving unchanged,  should be looked at in conjunction with my subsequent post. LINK TO LATER POST ]

    The study was conducted in US sites on what appear to have been a group of individuals in whom disorders unrelated to HIV were overrepresented.  As mentioned earlier, these disorders include diabetes, hepatitis B and C, high blood pressure and a history of heart disease.

    I doubt if information on compliance is available.

    Even if one could show differences between the US and non US sites ,  how would  this  affect the study outcome?  More people died in the intermittent treatment arm compared to those receiving continuous treatment. So this is the second question.

    Could there be an explanation for the differences noted between the study arms (albeit only in the US) other than the antiviral treatment strategies?

    There could be a connection with general patient care.

    In order to minimize bias in a study, where possible when treatments are compared, participants and those conducting the trial do not know what treatment is being received by particular participants.

    The study is blinded, so that as far as it is possible, we can attribute any effects observed to the treatment, not to any anything else.  For example, if patients knew what they were or were not receiving in a treatment trial, they may behave differently, and  in ways that may affect the outcome, which then could not be attributed to the particular treatment being studied.

    For example if a patient knew they were receiving a placebo, they may then take other medications that might affect the outcome of the trial, or if doctors knew patients were taking a medicine they believed worked they might treat their patients with greater care or with less care.  We do recognize that some behaviors that may alter the outcome of a study are  certainly not intentional.

    It was impossible to blind the SMART study.  So, both participants and physicians knew which arm of the study patients were randomized to.

    If the study doctor was also the person who provided  general  care than the specter of bias unfortunately is lurking and may confound interpretations.

    This is not to say that differences in general care between both study arms, if indeed there were differences, were intentional.

    To put the questions in another way:

    1: Can general patient management strategies ( not the strategy of antiviral treatment being studied) have an impact on all cause mortality?  In other words, can the way health care providers manage the general  health of their patients make a difference to survival?

    2: Can bias influence the ways physicians take care of their patients?

    The answer is of course yes., although we may not like to admit this.    So bias might be a factor in an unblinded study and affect the outcome.

    So we are still in the dark regarding regarding the value or danger  of treatment interruptions.

    As a postscript, a similar problem hangs over the original AZT study – the study that led to the approval of this drug by the FDA.  Of course the dramatic life saving effect of zidovudine seen in this trial  has never been observed again.

    This placebo controlled study was also in effect unblinded. Patients and doctors knew who was receiving placebo or active drug.

    Deaths were mostly due to opportunistic infections. Patient management strategies can make the difference between life and death with regard to these infections. Rapid diagnosis, effective treatments obviously make a difference. Can bias influence patient management strategies?

    I wrote about this in – I think 1989, and the article can be seen by clicking here.

    I suppose that one must conclude that the fact that almost all the deaths in the SMART study occurred in the US was not known to journalists and those who specialize in informing us about issues related to AIDS.  I also missed it when it was  published in 2008 [iii].

    The report of Dr Kuller may be the first public mention of this odd result. But it is just mentioned and not discussed at all.

    Here is what Justin Stebbing and Angus Dalgleish wrote in the Lancet Infectious diseases about this report:

    ” The follow-on case-control study by Kuller and colleagues showed that it is apparently safer to be off  HAART outside the USA rather than on HAART within the USA”

    As a clinician I don’t know what to make of the SMART results. In the lamentable absence of firm evidence one has to use one’s best judgment in caring for patients.  Numbers of my patients have – at their request and at my recommendation, temporarily interrupted their treatments, using a variety of strategies, with no harm, and with a better quality of life.

    I imagine that some will have been persuaded to stop this practice  by their new physicians. But I am still in touch with one, who had a CD4 count of 0 when first seen, who still regularly interrupts his treatment.  He is extremely well, leading an active and productive life.


    The Lancet Infectious Diseases, Volume 9, Issue 5, Pages 268 – 269, May 2009

    The New England Journal of Medicine [NEJM 355(22): 2283-96 (2006)

    PLoS Medicine 5 (10); e203.doi:10.1371/journal.pmed.0050203

    Kuller LH, et al. (2008) Inflammatory and Coagulation Biomarkers and Mortality in Patients with HIV infection.

    HarrisTB et al 1999  Association of elevated IL6 and CRP levels with mortality in the elderly, Am J Med 106: 506

    Ridker PM et al 2000 Plasma concentrations of IL 6 and the risk of future myocardial infarction among apparently healthy men.  Circulation  101 1767

    Shorr AF et al 2002 D-dimer corerelates with proinflammatory cytokine levels and oycomes in critically ill patients, CHEST 121: 1262

    HIV disease is in fact characterized by multiple examples of positive feedback systems – a subject for another post.




  • When is it best to start antiretroviral treatment: an update April 2009

    Posted on April 13th, 2009 admin 2 comments

    “Starting HIV Therapy Earlier Saves Lives”

    “Study: Treatment for HIV Should Start Earlier”

    “Starting Therapy Earlier Found to Improve Survival”

    “Earlier HIV Treatment Boosts Survival”

    With headlines like these you would think that there is a clear answer to the question of when is it best for HIV infected people  to start antiretroviral treatment.  There can be no doubt at all that starting antiviral therapy early – in this case at a CD4 count above 500 improves survival.  These headlines, addressed to HIV infected individuals their physicians and the public are a unanimous response to a study that just appeared in the New England Journal of medicine (NEJM).  http://content.nejm.org/cgi/content/full/NEJMoa0807252

    But is this confidence justified?

    Unfortunately, despite these headlines, the study which occasioned them was absolutely unable to justify the conclusion ; we still do not know when it’s best to start treatment.

    The study examined data that had been previously collected.  It was a retrospective observational study with all the problems inherent in such studies. These have been outlined in a previous post.

    About a week after this study appeared in the NEJM, another large retrospective observational study was published in the Lancet (April 9th 2009

    doi:10.1016/S0140-6736(09)60612-7http://www.thelancet.com/images/clear.gif ).

    While both studies support the desirability of not delaying a start to antiviral therapy to a CD4 count below 350, they do differ with respect to the reported benefits of starting above that number.  The Lancet study, whose lead author is Jonathan Sterne, finds a decreasing benefit at start times increasing above a CD4 count of 350, with nothing   at starting around 400.

    The authors of both reports  agree that prospective randomized studies are the best way to approach a resolution of the “when to start” question – a question that might have already  received a reliable general answer had we begun these studies in 1997, as some of us suggested we do at that time.

    Obviously we cannot just wait for the results of randomized prospective studies.  We do need guidelines now, but any recommendation based on available information must be regarded as provisional, until the results of prospective randomized studies are in.  It is important that this be clearly stated. If we are ever going to be able to enrol a prospective randomized study then we cannot afford to delude ourselves that the answer to the when to start question is already known.

    While the lead author of the New England Journal of Medicine did pay homage to prospective randomized trials – and a kind of ritualized homage is exactly what it sounded like, this gesture most certainly did not inhibit her from unreservedly recommending an earlier start to treatment, a start even at a CD4 count above 500, without conducting such a prospective study.  Her conclusion:

    “The early initiation of antiretroviral therapy before the CD4+ count fell below two

    prespecified thresholds significantly improved survival, as compared with deferred

    therapy

    One of these prespecified thresholds was a count 500 CD4 lymphocytes.

    This categorical statement, arrived at by the kind of study that cannot possibly justify such confidence, will have a negative  effect on  enrolment in proposed randomized trials, which are in fact the kind of study that can provide conclusions in which we can have justified confidence.

    This study may well be the last coffin nail in any hopes there may have been for the completion of prospective randomized trials designed to address the “when to start” issue.  It may now be impossible to enrol, and will never get off the ground. This difficulty is made so much worse by the kind of uncritical headlines shown above

    I wonder how the commentators who rushed so uncritically to announce Dr Kitahata’s conclusion on the benefits of starting treatment at CD4 counts even greater than 500 will respond to the Lancet report, which did not find a benefit with starting at such high CD4 numbers?   I hope I’m wrong in suspecting that this study will be largely ignored; the headlines trumpeting the survival benefit of starting treatment early – even above a CD4 count of 500 will not be marred by any doubt introduced by the study reported in the Lancet.

    Among the problems with the New England Journal of Medicine study is that a significant number of people were left out of the analysis, because their HIV disease failed to cooperate with preconceived notions about the course of this disease.

    This is a significant criticism and I will try to explain why.  The study examined two groups of people, one with over 500 CD4 lymphocytes, and one with CD4 counts between 351 and 500.

    Let’s just take the 351 to 500 group.    Here, deaths in those starting at counts between 351 and 500 were compared with deaths in those starting below 350. Sounds reasonable?   Maybe, until we learn that significant numbers of people with 351 – 500 CD4 cells who did not start treatment  also did not progress to below 350 CD4 cells.   So the authors just left these people out of their calculations. They in effect did not exist for the investigators.

    The recommendations the authors make are meant for all people, including those who did not progress and were left out of the analysis.  These people are also going to be treated with drugs they don’t need, as they cannot be identified.

    I suppose this will do wonders for drug sales, but there will be individuals taking drugs for no reason and some may only suffer their ill effects as well as cost while deriving no benefit.

    Here is another serious problem with this study.

    Among those people with CD4 counts between 351 and 500, it is important to know just how long treatment was delayed in those who waited until their counts fell below 350.   This information was provided; the median count at the time of starting treatment among all who waited was 286.   But what was the CD4 count at starting treatment among those in this group who died?

    This information was not given – at least I was unable to find it.

    Could there have been those starting treatment with counts below 100, below 50 – maybe even below 20.   In an extreme example, if a person waited to start treatment to a point close to death, there would not be much surprise that delaying treatment   initiation is associated with a worse outcome.

    Many physicians are proud that the field has abandoned uncritical authority as a guide to practice and has now embraced evidence based medicine. David Sackett, one of its originators, has stated that one pillar of evidence based medicine is the use of the best external evidence in making clinical decisions.

    All too frequently physicians, while priding themselves on practising evidence based medicine,  somehow are still able to make decisions based solely on their unproven beliefs, as if they have a private source to the truth, some special access to an oracle.  I have  heard one physician state that anyone with a viral load should be treated, another saying essentially the same thing in stating that he would treat every HIV infected patient no matter what the CD4 count. How on earth have they arrived at these conclusions?  Patients might just as well seek advice from a palm reader.

    As always you can’t beat the truth. No matter what the private sources of information to which  some physicians and patients apparently have access, the truth remains  that apart from people with under 200 CD4 cells the best time to initiate antiviral therapy is unknown.

    I have once before faced this kind of opposition to conducting a randomized prospective study to address the question of when is it best to start treatment.  In the early 1990s I participated in an effort to conduct a trial of early versus deferred treatment with AZT.  A pilot study was initiated, and I participated with some statisticians in describing the study to numbers of physicians in New York City, with the hope of encouraging them to enrol patients.  Despite expressions of enthusiasm, the response was so dismal that the trial could never take place.  However there was one physician – just a single physician in San Jose who was able to recruit many more patients than all the others combined.  He was so successful that we asked him to come to New York City to explain how he was able to enrol so many patients.  His answer was simple.  He told patients the truth. He did not know when it was best to start treatment, so he and his patients let the toss of a coin determine this, as a means of finding out what was best by participating in a study.

    This means that the other doctors were unable to say they did not know.  Maybe, as is the case today some actually felt that they did know, as they had complete faith in their intuition, or perhaps had some private access to the truth. For these physicians the practice of medicine is more akin to a faith based activity.  Maybe other physicians  did not know when it was best to start treatment, but might have felt unable to admit this; maybe some patients felt they knew and physicians acceded to their wishes.

    The rational response to uncertainty – having first overcome the hurdle of being able to admit that there is uncertainty – is to try to resolve this by the best means available.

    I fear we are not even close to recognizing that there is uncertainty about when to start treatment in people with over 200 CD4 cells.  The NEJM article exacerbates the problem with its assumption of certainty, an assumption very sadly shared by some health care providers, some journalists and community commentators to whom HIV infected people turn to for advice.

    In conclusion I cannot lose an opportunity to yet again bring attention to the need to individualize therapy.   The rate of HIV disease progression is so widely variable that there are limitations in setting a fixed CD4 count as a guide to start therapy.  A prospective appropriately designed trial can tell us if on average it is better to start above rather than below a certain CD4 count, or on average it is better to start treatment immediately or to defer it.

    It is the “on average” limitation that needs fine tuning for each individual patient.

    Not only will the rate of disease progression vary widely between patients, but there are other individual considerations that impact the decision to start treatment. For example, adequate housing, mental health issues, co morbidities and many other factors need to be considered.

    These two aspects, the general and the particular, fit so very neatly into David Sackett’s description of evidence based medicine that I will quote a passage:

    The practice of evidence based medicine means integrating individual clinical expertise with the best available external clinical evidence from systematic research. By individual clinical expertise we mean the proficiency and judgment that individual clinicians acquire through clinical experience and clinical practice“.

    BMJ 1996;312:71-72 (13 January) : Evidence based medicine: what it is and what it isn’t.  David L Sackett, William M C Rosenberg, J A Muir Gray, R Brian Haynes, W Scott Richardson

    The best available external evidence will be the  results of a prospective randomized trial; these  will provide general guidance.  Individual clinical expertise will apply this to particular patients,  taking into account many factors, not least of which is the patient’s rate of disease progression.

    A previous post discusses the  issue of individualization of treatment.


    If we took individualization of treatment seriously, we could in fact come some way to identifying rapid and slow/non progressors.  See previous post on individualization of treatment.

    Often forgotten, the second pillar is individual clinical judgement.

  • HIV Infection in HIV Antibody Negative Individuals

    Posted on April 1st, 2009 admin 2 comments
    • HIV infection in HIV antibody negative individuals

    There is another post on this topic: HIV infection in individuals who are HIV antibody negative:

    The possibility that there are individuals who are infected with HIV but who are negative on the test for HIV antibodies has always been theoretically possible. Considerable evidence has accumulated for many years that there are indeed such individuals. Despite the importance of this phenomenon, it receives relatively little comment.

    It sometimes seemed to me ever since I first tried to discuss this possibility in the mid 1980s that there was a wilful discouragement of any discussion of this topic.

    In 1989 David Imagawa reported that that 31 of 133 HIV antibody negative men showed the presence of HIV.

    In 27 of them this persisted for 36 months despite remaining seronegative  [1]. This resulted in a vigorous response culminating in what almost looked like a retraction by the authors. At that time many unsuccessful attempts to replicate these results were reported, and the findings of David Imagawa were generally presented as due to technical errors, such as incorrect specimen labelling. In view of many subsequent findings, the likelihood is that David Imagawa and his colleagues were correct. The furious response to Imagawa’s paper is an indication of how non rational considerations can influence the progress of science. This is of course nothing new.

    Curiously in a recent book, Imagawa’s findings are included in a list of what are stated to be errors and controversies in the HIV/AIDS epidemic that impeded scientific progress [2]

    What in fact impeded progress was a rigid adherence to what was only a hypothetical, not an empirical model of the course of HIV infection.

    David Imagawa died shortly after this controversy, and sadly did not live to see that his initial conclusions were absolutely consistent with what has been learned of the complexity and diversity of individual responses to HIV infection.

    I certainly experienced considerable resistance and disbelief when I raised the possibility of silent HIV infections. In the late 1980s I took part in a NPR program, and was quite abruptly dismissed by another scientist (I have forgotten who) when I raised the absolutely reasonable theoretical possibility of persistent latent infections in antibody negative individuals.

    Apart from very few exceptions there was an almost complete lack of interest in HIV seronegative, but infected individuals, by science writers; there was no shortage of community commentators who also seemed to be oblivious or uncaring of this phenomenon.

    To be sure there were occasional reports of seronegative but infected individuals. Gus Cairns, a UK journalist wrote about this in the UK magazine, Positive nation. I wrote something about this as a result of an interview with him in 2000, which he published. I have scanned the article. I was unable to make a perfect copy, but a legible version can be seen by clicking HERE.

    In the US reports confirming the existence of seronegative infected people continued to receive very little comment; what little there was was generally quite hostile..

    Today this issue was again brought to my attention by an article I saw reporting the presence of HIV proteins and HIV RNA in cervical biopsies from women who were persistently HIV seronegative , at least for the duration of the study which was one year [3]. They did not have antibodies to HIV despite being infected; of course it is possible that they are in an unusually long “window period” and will eventually seroconvert.  If we use “window period” in this sense then we  can speak of a distribution of window periods of different lengths, including an indefinite one.

    I expect that, as is usual this report will provoke little or absolutely no interest.

    But it is enormously interesting; (just one of many questions: can these women infect their male partners?)

    Seeing this article is the reason why I decided to make this issue the subject of this post.

    It was no great surprise when evidence appeared that there were some individuals who were HIV infected but remained negative on the HIV antibody test. It must be said that there were probably more papers in the early years in which silent HIV infections in HIV antibody negative individuals was not observed.

    In another approach, reports started to appear that HIV antibody negative individuals had T lymphocyte responses to HIV which means that they were exposed to the virus, not necessarily that they were infected – although that is quite a real possibility. Some early papers, before 2000, including those showing T cell responses can be seen by clicking HERE . There was quite an extensive literature at that time, but most, as mentioned reported that there was no such thing as a silent antibody negative infection, apart from the short window period following infection.

    Why has the possibility of prolonged latency always been theoretically possible?

    As part of its life cycle HIV is turned into DNA and is then incorporated into the host genome. In infected cells it effectively becomes part of our genetic material. Once inserted into human DNA, it must be activated to start the process of making new virus particles. Cellular signals that start the process of activating HIV DNA include cytokines, which are messenger molecules produced and released by cells, which can then act on other cells to evoke a variety of responses. Amongst these HIV activating cytokines are those that are called proinflammatory cytokines.  These appear during the course of many different infections.  Once HIV DNA is activated, and at least some of its proteins made, these then mediate further activation.

    There are some other factors that can activate HIV DNA.

    Alloantigens are antigens expressed on foreign cells. When these antigens are in contact with a cell containing integrated HIV DNA, activation occurs; HIV DNA is transcribed and new viral particles made. In earlier days HIV was isolated from infected lymphocytes in this way. Latently infected lymphocytes were induced to produce HIV by culturing them together with lymphocytes from an uninfected donor.

    It is the nature of HIV infection that it is frequently acquired in situations which involve exposure to foreign cells (to alloantigens). This may be exposure to semen in sexual transmission, or blood cells in the case of infection by shared needles, or by blood transfusion.

    Herpes viruses have the ability to activate HIV if a cell is infected with both viruses. I suppose this must happen but I imagine doubly infected cells may not be found  too frequently. Of course active herpetic infections in non HIV infected cells may be associated with the production of pro inflammatory cytokines, which circulate and can activate HIV DNA in a cell at a distance.

    There is absolutely no reason not to expect that in some circumstances incorporation of HIV DNA into human DNA will result in a state of stable integration. This means that HIV DNA remains in the genome, it is not activated, and no virus is produced. Since antibodies are made as a response to viral proteins, and as none are made, the HIV antibody test will be negative.

    So it was no surprise when such individuals were again reported in 1999 [4]. These individuals remained in good health and were reported to be antibody negative as long as they were observed [5].

    We cannot know if these individuals may seroconvert (or maybe already have), but what is established is that stable integration of HIV DNA without seroconversion can occur. In such individuals limited expression of HIV can occur, at least sufficient to induce, if not antibodies, a cellular immune response.

    The presence of such cellular immune responses in HIV antibody negative individuals is further evidence consistent with HIV DNA persistence, but in itself does not indicate this.

    Demonstration of cell mediated immunity to HIV:

    Apart from the identification of antibodies, specific immunity to HIV can also be detected by a much more elaborate test that measures cellular immunity rather than immunity determined by detecting specific anti HIV antibodies. In this case what is measured is the ability of lymphocytes to recognize HIV. They will do so only if they have been exposed to the virus, which would obviously be the case if they were taken from an infected individual.

    The detection of such lymphocyte responses in the mid 1990s was one of the first indications that there may be infected people who don’t make antibodies. Other interpretations are that the infection was overcome, or that that the individual was infected with defective virus.

    Gene Shearer was I believe the first to report this phenomenon. HIV antibody negative sexual partners of HIV positive people, as well as individuals who had occupational contact with HIV were among those showing these responses.

    It is unknown how widespread this phenomenon of silent HIV infection is. It may be exceedingly rare. It is also unknown if this condition of stable integration is really just a prolonged “window” period that always follows all HIV infections.

    But it is entirely possible that there are individuals in whom the ability to control HIV is such that they will remain healthy and HIV negative.

    A number of different  outcomes of HIV infection are possible:

    Some of the factors that influence this:


    Host genetic factors.

    Size of the inoculum – the amount of infecting virus.

    Route of infection

    The particular virus strain.

    The presence of associated systemic infections.

    these provide signals activating HIV proviral DNA. In the case of some tropical infections there may be cytokines (IL 10) that blunt immune responses.

    Sexually transmitted infections with genital ulcers.

    Double infection of a cell with HIV and herpes viruses – probably an unusual occurrence.

    Exposure to alloantigens; a theoretical possibility.

    These are some of the known influences.

    Maybe the most common outcome is a productive infection where viral DNA is activated within a few weeks.

    But this scenario is also possible:

    Infection is followed by insertion of HIV DNA into cellular nuclear DNA. Possibly with small inoculums, and in the absence of strong or sustained activation signals, the proviral DNA remains silent. This has been observed.

    Or this one:

    There is a limited burst of viral production, not sufficient to elicit an antibody response but enough to induce a cell mediated response with the generation of lymphocytes that recognize HIV antigens and can kill HIV infected cells. HIV seronegative individuals with such specific lymphocyte responses have certainly been observed. In this case if there is an incipient burst of HIV production, the producing cells are promptly killed. Each time this happens the cellular immune response is primed and strengthened. Such a mechanism has been well studied in EBV infections. This common virus is totally unlike HIV, but it does similar things. It remains present in B lymphocytes rather than T lymphocytes for life. The mechanism of persistence is quite different – EBV is not a retrovirus. But the majority of individuals carry this virus – which in rare situations can have lethal effects, in their B lymphocytes for life. We have evolved many mechanisms to keep this virus in check. The ability of some types of lymphocytes to kill EBV infected cells which start to make virus is well understood. Similar mechanisms must exist for HIV – but obviously for most, are insufficiently effective. But in those with very limited HIV production these killer lymphocytes may actually be what allows such rare fortunate individuals to remain HIV seronegative.

    With this outcome, one can view the infection as actually having an immunizing effect.

    If there were not yet enough reason to study the phenomenon of persistently seronegative HIV infection, this is an important one. What are the circumstances that produce this outcome?

    So, for many reasons individuals who are seronegative but have lymphocyte responses to HIV are of great interest.

    Yet another scenario is one of stable integration, but where some HIV proteins, but not complete virus, are produced. Maybe the women referred to whose cervical biopsies contained HIV antigens might be in this category. This is a strange situation as antigens were detected but these women apparently did not develop antibodies.

    Another very early observation that can be explained by the prior presence of integrated HIV  DNA that is only activated by a subsequent non HIV  infection is the finding that  episodes  of EBV reactivation may precede HIV seroconversion. [6].  This raises the possibility that at least some illnesses associated with primary HIV infection are nothing of the sort. They instead may represent rather non specific viral infections that activate already present integrated HIV DNA, and thus  followed by HIV seroconversion. This is a completely plausible scenario. Of course self reported sexual histories may sometimes  not be too reliable, but nontheless, I well recall an older gay male patient of mine who told me that he had had no sexual contact for years, he had several negative HIV tests over a period of a few years, and then tested positive.  I wondered  then if he may possibly have been infected years before, that he carried latent HIV DNA and this was subsequently activated by some febrile illness. I know this is only an anecdote, and that individuals can be guarded about their sexual histories.  I wonder if others have had similar experiences?

    I think around 1996  a description of the course of infection was produced. Everyone interested in this disease will have seen this picture: Here it is again:

    hivaids_9_fig-53

    This may represent a typical course of infection.  But HIV disease is probably so variable in the course it can take that there may well not be such a thing as a typical infection.

    This depiction does however give the impression that there is,  and discourages an appreciation of the probably  immense variations in the course of  HIV disease.  The notion of a “standard” course of HIV disease has  had implications for treatment.  Recommendations are made that take no account of  individual  rates of disease progression;  a one size fits all approach has been adopted.

    The  rapid acceptance that there is a typical – or an  average  course of HIV infection is particularly odd as not only is the disease new – we have no precedents of human retroviral diseases (apart from HTLV-1 associated disease);  the techniques used to study the disease are themselves new. The ability to identify T lymphocyte subsets with monoclonal antibodies is about as old as the HIV epidemic. So we had no idea then of the variation in T subset numbers in health and disease. Other immunological and virological techniques were, and continue to be introduced as the epidemic is proceeding.

    A model was constructed before sufficient evidence was available to justify it.  It really had no empirical basis; moreover it seemed to utterly ignore what we knew of other chronic viral diseases.  For example, hepatitis B and Hepatitis C can both have very variable courses.  These can range from clearing the infection, running a fulminant course ending fatally  to the establishment of a chronic active state which may progress at varying rates.  If we were to construct a model of the course of HIV disease only about  12 to 15 years after the disease was first seen, why on earth did we not consider the precedents of other chronic viral diseases?   Thus we might have  included the real possibility that some exposures may result in infections that may be cleared , as well as the now demonstrated situation where silent antibody negative infections occur.    The picture shown above – and presented in every text on HIV disease may indeed represent the most common course of HIV infection. But even this is not  known.

    HIV infection, like other chronic viral infections  can progress in different ways. If we were more open to this there may have been greater interest and funding into research that investigates the various factors that influence how the disease progresses. This has obvious therapeutic implications  –  for example as proinflammatory cytokines promote HIV replication, the control of endemic infections in some areas where they are highly prevalent is absolutely relevant to the control of HIV infection.  Steps as simple as the provision of sanitation and clean water may well have an impact on the control of HIV infection in some geographical areas.  Had we not been so tied to the notion of  a fixed course of HIV infection, we might have placed importance on the individualization of therapy, not only considering a fixed CD4 count as a signal to start therapy, but also considering each individuals rate of disease progression.

    HIV disease is in this sense like  every other infectious disease, the course of which  to a greater or lesser extent can be influenced by many different factors , including host factors, factors related to the pathogen, the particular variant , the size of the infecting dose, the route of infection amongst many others.

    I have often wondered why there has been such resistance to not only the reasonable idea, but also to actual evidence that HIV disease  does not necessarily  take the course  shown above.

    In conclusion, the study of prolonged HIV seronegativity in infected people is important. Some reasons are:

    1. There are obvious implications for vaccine development.

    2. Seroprevalence may significantly underestimate the prevalence of HIV infection.

    3. Understanding the phenomenon will advance our understanding of the pathogenesis of this disease, which in turn will open new therapeutic approaches.

    4. There are instances of infected people remaining seronegative and in good health.

    [1]

    Imagawa, D.T., M.H. Lee. S.M Wolinsky. et al..

    Human immunod­eficiency virus type 1 infection in homosexual men who remain seronegative for prolonged periods.

    New England Journal of Medicine 1989 320:1458-1462.

    [2]

    Scientific Errors and Controversies in the U.S. HIV/AIDS Epidemic: How They Slowed Advances and Were Resolved

    By Scott D. Holmberg

    Published by Greenwood Publishing Group, 2008

    [3]

    Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) Antigens and RNA in HIV-Seronegative Women with Cervical Intraepithelial Neoplasia
    Jayasri Basu, Seymour L. Romney, Ruth H. Angeletti, Sten H. Vermund, Edward Nieves, Anna S. Kadish, Magdy S. Mikhail, and George A. Orr

    The publisher of this journal kindly sends me the contents of each issue as I started this journal around 1983 and was its first editor, seeing it through its first two volumes. It was then simply called AIDS Research.

    [4]

    Zhu T, Corey L, Akridge R, Change Y, Feng F, Kim J, Alef C, Mcelroy J, Mullins J, Mcelrath J.

    Evidence for HIV-1 latent infection in exposed seronegative individuals.

    Abstract No.8, 6th Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections. Chicago. 1999.

    [5]

    Persistence of extraordinarily low levels of genetically homogeneous human immunodeficiency virus type 1 in exposed seronegative individuals.

    Journal of virology, {J-Virol}, Jun 2003, vol. 77, no. 11, p. 6108-16,

    Zhu-Tuofu, Corey-Lawrence, Hwangbo-Yon, Lee-Jean-M, Learn-Gerald-H, Mullins-James-I, McElrath-M-Juliana.

    Abstract

    Some individuals remain inexplicably seronegative and lack evidence for human immunodeficiency virus type 1 (HIV-1) infection by conventional serologic or virologic testing despite repeated high-risk virus exposures. Here, we examined 10 exposed seronegative (ES) individuals exhibiting HIV-1-specific cytotoxicity for the presence of HIV-1. We discovered HIV-1 DNA in resting CD4(+) T cells (mean, 0.05 + /- 0.01 copies per million cells) at multiple visits spanning 69 to 130 weeks in two ES individuals at levels that were on average 10(4)-to 10(6)-fold lower than those of other HIV-1-infected populations reported. Sequences of HIV-1 envelope and gag genes remained markedly homogeneous, indicating little to undetectable virus replication. These results provide the evidence for HIV-1 infection in ES individuals below the detection limit of standard assays, suggesting that extraordinary control of infection can occur. The two HIV- infected ES individuals remained healthy and were not superinfected with other HIV-1 strains despite continued high-risk sexual exposures to multiple HIV-infected partners. Understanding the mechanisms that confer diminished replicative capacity of HIV-1 in these hosts is paramount to developing strategies for protection against and control of HIV-1 infection.

    [6]
    Schattner, A, Hanuka N, Sarov B, Sarov I, Handzel Z, Bentwich Z.

    Sequential serological studies of homosexual men with and without HIV infection. Epstein-Barr virus activation preceding and following HIV seroconversion.

    Clin Exp Immunol 1991; 85: 209-13.

  • Individualization of HIV therapy

    Posted on March 8th, 2009 admin 1 comment

    Why treatment of HIV infection must be individualized.

    HIV disease is usually a progressive disease. That is, it has a starting point; the time of infection. The disease then progresses, and without treatment will generally end fatally. There are some very fortunate HIV infected individuals who are able to control viral replication and remain disease free. But for most, HIV disease does progress. But, for each individual, the rate at which it progresses varies widely. Disease progression is reflected in the fall in the numbers of CD4 lymphocytes.

    So any single CD4 count measurement is really a point on a descending curve, one that does not necessarily proceed in a straight line, and falls at widely differing rates in different individuals.

    Recommendations for the treatment of HIV infected individuals are issued periodically by DHHS and bodies such as the International AIDS Society. These recommendations, particularly those concerning when to start antiviral treatment, have always included a particular CD4 count as a signal to start or to consider starting antiviral treatment.

    All individuals with a CD4 count of less than 200 should be on therapy. They are in great danger of acquiring a possibly fatal opportunistic infection and evidence derived from clinical studies makes it absolutely clear that antiretroviral treatment is life saving.

    But what about people with higher CD4 counts? Here there is uncertainty about when in the course of HIV infection it is best to start treatment. Of course, if the drugs were completely harmless (including cost) it might be less important to have an answer to this question. However the drugs can have significant adverse effects, some of which only become evident after years of use. For people with fewer than 200 CD4 lymphocytes, the benefit of antiviral treatment overwhelmingly outweighs the risks.

    For others, a very mixed group, with CD4 cells anywhere from 200 to over 1000, and each with a different rate of disease progression, we cannot, with any security, make a “one size fits all” recommendation as to when it is best to start treatment.

    The best way to resolve clinical uncertainty remains randomized prospective clinical trials. By now we might already have obtained reliable evidence as to whether, on average, it is best for infected individuals with more than 200 CD4 lymphocytes, and who have no symptoms, to start antiviral treatment immediately, or to defer it. (A suggestion made in 1997 when the first guidelines were issued: http://aidsperspective.net/articles/guidelines1.pdf )

    The current recommendations, regarding people with greater than 200 CD4 lymphocytes, and who are without symptoms, propose a CD4 count of 350 as a point to start treatment ( many believe this number should be 500). This recommendation is made for all individuals – it is a one size fits all approach[1]. This kind of approach is appropriate for some aspects of treatment; for others it is very wrong[2].

    Perhaps the most important  example of a  recommendation, where its application across the board  is problematic,  is that which deals  with the time when antiretroviral treatment should be started in individuals with greater than 200 CD4 lymphocytes.  This recommendation specifies a specific CD4 count at which to start. As noted, for individuals with a CD4 count below 200, there is no doubt that they will benefit from therapy. For others who have no symptoms, specifying a CD4 count for all is mistaken. It is here that individualization is necessary.

    The reason is that no two HIV infected people are the same with respect to the rate of disease progression. During the early years of the epidemic, before antiretroviral treatment was introduced, we soon noted that the CD4 count declined at different rates in different people, and not necessarily in a straight line. As noted, at one extreme, there were the few fortunate individuals in whom there seemed to be no disease progression, at the other there were the few people whose CD4 cells fell very rapidly after infection, and who did not survive for more than 2-3 years, but most fitted somewhere between these extremes .

    To illustrate this I have considered four possible situations. This is a picture of the possible rates of CD4 decline in four different individuals. . It is true that these pictures are constructs, but they do accurately reflect the observed variability in disease progression; real examples showing this variability would be easily found in my medical records, and of course in those of other physicians during the period between 1981 and about 1993.

    The dip in CD4 cells following infection is usually seen when there is an opportunity to observe this. CD4 cells then rebound to a level called the set point, which will be different in relation to the pre infection level in different people. From then on it declines, but at a very variable rate, and can remain steady for varying periods before declining, again at varying rates.

    img049

    Look at where three of them (A ,B and C) reach a count of 450 CD4 lymphocytes; A (an unusual rapid progressor) gets there in about one year, B in about 3 years, C in 7 years, and D, who is a fortunate non progressor is nowhere close after 18 years.

    The arguments for starting early are not only to forestall reaching the dangerous level of 200 CD4 lymphocytes. The continuous deterioration of the immune system and diminished chances of recovery at lower counts are also arguments for an earlier start. There is also the possibility that there is a greater incidence of cancer, – other than lymphoma and Kaposi’s sarcoma, at higher CD4 counts in HIV infected people. If this is so then it remains to be shown how frequently these events occur and whether antiviral therapy can avert them.

    Treatment itself, particularly if extended over many years, is not without risks, some of which cannot even be completely known yet, particularly with the newer antiviral agents. We have to do the best we can in making a risk benefit assessment. In order to do this we should attempt to obtain information on the rate of disease progress in any one individual. This may not be entirely possible, as the rate of disease progression in any one individual may not be steady; it may accelerate or slow down. But it is possible to obtain a good, if not perfect, picture of the course of HIV disease in any one person.

    How might we obtain some information about a given individual’s rate of disease progression? Apart from obvious exceptions, and in people below 200 CD4 cells, there are no emergencies in HIV medicine. For each person we generally will have time to observe the CD4 count and viral load over a period of 6 to 12 months and obtain some idea of the rate of progress. A rapid fall in CD4 count might result in a decision to start in less than six months of observation. Or a consistent fall in CD4 count might lead to a decision to start treatment at CD4 numbers higher than even 500. This is far from perfect, as changes in CD4 cell numbers do not necessarily follow a straight line. But it is far better than basing a decision on a snapshot – which is what the experts are telling us to do.

    Individualization involves more than considering the rate of disease progression. There are other factors, such as associated diseases, domestic and social circumstances such as a lack of housing, as well as mental health issues, and many other considerations that are involved in individualization. Observing people also provides the time to establish a doctor patient relationship and for the physician to become familiar with the patients particular circumstances.

    The natural history of untreated HIV disease is relevant to the “when to start treatment” issue and will be the topic of the next post.


    [1] Evidence supporting the recommendation is derived in part from retrospective observations. The reasons why these are unreliable guides are outlined in the previous post. It is critical to as far as possible, eliminate bias in study designs because this increases the probability that a particular outcome can be interpreted as indeed resulting from a particular intervention. In this case it would be that improved survival is due to an earlier start of antiviral therapy and that the medications mediate the effect – and not for example, from simply being under the supervision of a physician. Retrospective observations, that is, looking back at information already gathered cannot be free of confounding factors as described in the previous post. In a prospective study people would be randomly assigned to receive immediate treatment or to defer it. This will give us the most reliable answer to the question of which approach is better on average.

    [2]Examples of measures that should be taken in the treatment of every HIV infected person, irrespective of the rate of disease progression are the types of tests that are performed on the initial assessment of an infected person. For example, the initial assessment of an HIV infected person should always include not only CD4 counts and HIV viral load measurements, but also tests for hepatitis, toxoplasmosis, and many other investigations. Another example of an intervention that is appropriate for categories of infected people is treatment to prevent Pneumocystis pneumonia in people with less than 200 CD4 cells. And of course, people in this category must always be offered antiretroviral therapy.

  • When is it best to start antiretroviral treatment. February, 2009

    Posted on February 26th, 2009 admin 1 comment

    When is it best to start antiretroviral treatment?

    The issue of when it is best for asymptomatic HIV infected people with more than 350 CD4 cells to start treatment with antiretroviral drugs has received renewed attention lately. Reports at recent conferences and discussions of these reports on several websites all seem to favour an earlier start than at a CD4 count of 350. There is absolutely no reliable evidence to support this recommendation. The evidence that is presented derives mostly from retrospective observations. Such retrospective studies cannot provide reliable evidence that improved clinical outcomes in those starting treatment earlier are actually caused by the antiretroviral drugs. That this is so can only be an hypothesis, a theory to be tested by prospective studies. Such a prospective study would essentially follow people who are randomly assigned to start treatment immediately or to defer it.

    Some of the problems associated with interpreting retrospective observations are outlined at the end of this post1.

    The “when to start” issue of course only applies to infected persons who are not symptomatic and have a CD4 count above 200. For those with fewer CD4 cells there is no doubt at all that such individuals should be on therapy.

    If the antiviral drugs were completely harmless, with no toxicity, we would have no problem at all, apart, of course from the financial toxicity. However the drugs are not without problems, particularly if we are dealing with taking the medicines for a life time. The newer drugs are touted as being less toxic. However it takes years for some toxicities to become manifest. How many years were people taking Zerit, (D4T,stavudine) before we knew about its effects on fat distribution? Another example of toxic effects only becoming apparent after years of use is thinning of bones caused by some antiviral drugs.

    When potent antiretroviral agents were introduced in the 1990s their impact on reducing mortality was unequivocally demonstrated in persons with more advanced disease. This immediately left us with a question regarding the effect of starting these drugs in individuals with less advanced disease.

    Rather than admitting that the answer to this question was unknown, and required to be studied in a prospective fashion, the Department of Health and Human Services issued a set of guidelines. It is understandable that issuing guidelines, in the face of uncertainty is reasonable, but they must be regarded as interim, pending the outcome of studies.

    In 1997 I wrote a letter in response to the publication of these guidelines; it was received by the Guidelines Committee, but I was sent absolutely no response. The letter can be seen here: http://aidsperspective.net/articles/guidelines1.pdf

    Despite attempts to rely on retrospective observations to resolve clinical uncertainty, – such as uncertainty about when to start antiviral treatment, prospective randomized trials remain the best way to achieve this. They minimize bias, and thus misinterpretation, and are therefore the most reliable way to resolve uncertainty. There is no getting over this. Such trials may be expensive, and last a long time, but in the end, probably more time and money is lost by repeating inconclusive and conflicting retrospective studies.

    As always, you can’t beat the truth. Regarding the “when to start” question, the truth was and still is that the answer to the question is unknown. Again, if the drugs were harmless there would be no problem. But it is quite possible that a person starting treatment at say 700 CD4 cells, even 500 CD4 cells, who may be a slow progressor may well have his or her life shortened by long exposure to the medications.

    If, for whatever reason one presumes to favour a particular answer one can always select snippets of data to support one’s bias. Many would like to believe that it is better to start early. I have even read on one web site, that a New York physician stated that he would start any infected person on treatment no matter what the CD4 count was. I suppose this physician, and those who share this view are happy to practice with only their unsupported beliefs as a guide. This is as reliable as using a crystal ball and sick people deserve more from their health care advisers. In this respect the writers reporting such nonsense generally make no comment on the danger of views based only on belief, thereby adding credibility to these statements of faith. The practice of medicine is not a faith based activity.

    The scientists who attach unwarranted importance to retrospective studies are also doing a disservice to clinical research. Some at the recent CROI meeting did admit that a prospective randomized trial was the best way to obtain reliable evidence on the issue of when to start. But as reported on one web site:

    “Professor Doug Richman of the University of California San Diego questioned whether a ‘when to start’ trial was worth the expense. “Rather than spend millions on a trial, given that most people aren’t diagnosed until much later, why not use all that money to identify people who have the higher risk?” he asked”.

    Similarly:

    “He [Bartlett] also believes that the field is not willing to wait the 5 to 10 years necessary to generate an answer on when to start therapy.”

    Discovering what is in the best interests of the infected person is not worth the expense? Waiting 5 to 10 years to find out is unacceptable?

    So if we dispense with the truth to inform our actions, what could it be that guides us? Whatever it is, it is certainly no more reliable than consulting a palm reader.

    Interpretations of associations found in retrospective studies presented as reliable indicators of a cause and effect relationship, rather than possibly suggestive of such a relationship, have as much meaning as the interpretations of an astrologer. Of course such data may be useful in suggesting hypotheses.

    At a recent ICAAC meeting Dr Kitahata presented an analysis of a large retrospective study comparing outcomes among people starting at a higher as compared to a lower CD4 count. There was little meaningful criticism of the interpretation that the improved outcome in those starting treatment earlier was actually due to medications taken. Dr Kitahata felt that it was possible by some statistical magic for retrospective observations to mimic a randomized prospective study.

    Here is an illustration of the interpretive pitfalls in such studies; it is a comment I sent to the web site reporting the results and conclusions of retrospective studies. I used the name James Mello, and pointed out that, as an example people who started treatment earlier were more likely to be under medical care than those who started later, and this might have contributed to their better survival. Another possibility is that most of the mortality might have occurred in those with the lowest CD4 counts; the examples I gave in my comment were a CD4 count of 1 compared to 349, when in fact the study concentrated on individuals with counts above 350. There are other possible explanations. There was one comment that suggested the possibility that people who choose to start treatment early are more likely to be concerned with their health in general and thus more prudent, and presumably more cautious in risk taking.

    This is the comment of James Mello:

    http://aidsperspective.net/articles/mello.pdf

    Another retrospective study actually showed no survival benefit in people with CD4 counts above 450. Here is a report of this study and that of Dr Kitahata:

    http://www.medpagetoday.com/MeetingCoverage/CROI/12819

    Surely we need to know, and not guess when it is best to start treatment.

    There are those who favour an earlier start and may have reasonable ideas to support these views. But they remain views – not proven ways to proceed that are in the patient’s best interests.

    Let us find out if it is a fact that there is a benefit to starting earlier. All of us – HIV infected people and their advocates should be calling for appropriate prospective studies to guide us. We need to know the truth about when it is best to start.

    Even if we were to conduct an appropriate large randomized prospective study we would only know if in asymptomatic HIV infected people with greater than 350 CD4 cells, it is on average better or worse to start treatment early or to defer it or if it makes no difference, of course apart from the expense.

    This brings up an associated extremely important but neglected issue. This is the need to individualize therapy, which will be the subject of the next post.

    1.

    The causative interpretations of retrospective observations are made difficult by what are called confounding factors and some are impossible to overcome. For example we don’t know why people choose or agree to start treatment early or defer it. The different decisions may reflect the possibilities that those choosing an earlier start may have better access to medical care, and receive better care in general, or may be more likely to be people concerned with their overall health.

    Here is another example of something that might make interpretation of retrospective observations difficult.  A retrospective study  comparing mortality in people starting treatment above and below 500 CD4 cells finds that  those who start treatment at  higher CD4 numbers have a lower risk of risk of death.  If, in those who delayed treatment and died, we are not told what the median CD4 count was at the time treatment was started the overall conclusion that antiretroviral drugs improve survival if started above 500 CD4 cells, would be unwarranted. It might well be that those most who died delayed treatment until a CD4 count of 100 or less.  Had`they started at 450, 350, or 300 – numbers of course`all below 500, the outcome might have been very different.

    ****************************************************************

    The importance of individualized treatment.

  • AIDS and MINORITIES

    Posted on February 25th, 2009 admin 1 comment

     

    February 24th 2009

    AIDS and Minorities

    In the US, African Americans constitute 12% of the population, yet almost half of the total number of AIDS cases in the country occurs among them. This disaster is only now being generally recognized, with the leadership of the Federal AIDS response finally turning their attention to this tragedy, at least publicly.

    This is a tragedy that has been developing in full view for more than twenty years. One only has to look at statistics provided by the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) since the epidemic started to know, as early as 1987 that without intervention a preventable disease was inexorably moving into African American communities.

    Firstly, take a look at the situation in 2006 (data from the Kaiser family Foundation).

    2006c3

     

    Now take a look at this picture that clearly tells a horrible story that words cannot match.

    usepidemic3

     

    In the light of this devastating evidence how is one to understand the comments of Dr Fauci, who can be regarded as the head of the Federal scientific and medical response to AIDS?

    He noted that these “shocking statistics would be tragic anywhere but are particularly inexcusable in a wealthy country such as the United States.”

    His complete statement can be seen here: http://www3.niaid.nih.gov/about/directors/news/BAAID_09.htm

    Look at the above picture again. Cases in African Americans started to exceed those in white Americans in 1994, but the trends were quite evident long before this. We knew in 1988-1989 what was coming. So, one must wonder why it took all of twenty years to announce only in 2009, that these statistics are shocking.

    A preventable tragedy was taking shape in full view of the Federal AIDS leadership, who rather than fund a vigorous prevention education campaign directed towards those most in danger, instead chose to support a wasteful, vacuous untargeted prevention education program in the form of “America Responds to AIDS”.

    It is not only the federal AIDS leadership that failed to respond to warning signals flashing brightly right in front of them. In the early days of the epidemic there was a vigorous and exemplary community activist response. This was a terrific example of people dealing with a deadly disease taking action on their own behalf, fighting for the best medical and scientific response and against the all too frequent shameful stigmatization of HIV infected individuals.

    The flowering of AIDS activism in the late 1980s and early 1990s achieved a great deal. All people dealing with serious illness have benefitted from the precedent that was set. Yet, in recognizing this achievement, we must also wonder why many of these experienced advocates, who no doubt were aware of the demographic trends shown above, seemed generally less willing to at least try to avert the disaster threatening their fellow citizens? Of course some tried, and maybe were overwhelmed by massive indifference.

    Whatever the reasons, the advocacy of US activists abroad, particularly in Southern Africa, proved to be more effective than anything they were able to achieve in their own country for their fellow African American citizens. There are also other groups where AIDS has been, and continues to be a growing problem, but have been relatively neglected.

    Not for profit organizations, that raise funds to help and advocate for people with AIDS were also aware of what was developing, but if there were any efforts devoted to preventing a calamity visibly descending on the largest community at greatest risk, these clearly were of little benefit.

    What is almost, but not quite, as shocking as the neglect of a disaster developing in front of our eyes, is the complete absence of any sense of contrition, let alone a simple acknowledgment of failure, on the part of those who might have helped to prevent it.

    If justice includes the notion of equity then prevention resources should be distributed in proportion to the needs of different communities. This clearly has not happened and it might be helpful to give some thought as to why this has been the case.

    We need to know and admit what it is that we did unsuccessfully, or failed to do, to stop a preventable disaster, so that we can get it right in the future.

     

    Instead we have a wringing of hands by those who could have done something, but did nothing, to stop this.

    A similar article was posted on a health related web site in December of last year. There was no response to the issue I raised.

    This post can be seen here.

    http://Aidsperspective.net/articles/AIDS_AND_MINORITIES.pdf

     

     

    Take yet another look at the picture showing the changes in the proportion of AIDS cases according to racial/ethnic group over the past 20 years. It tells the whole story; no comment is really needed.

     

     

     

  • AIDSPERSPECTIVE

    Posted on February 4th, 2009 admin 1 comment

    Why another AIDS blog?

    In order to just get started on this blog, the various reasons for creating it will be described on my web site: aidsperspective.net One of these reasons, which I suppose is self evident, is to bring some attention to the web site, where I am attempting to create a record of various AIDS related activities I have been involved with since the epidemic was first recognized in 1981. I have more or less learned how to construct a web site – at least to the extent that I am able to post legible material, and I am gradually adding to its content.

    Another reason for creating this blog is to provide an opportunity for comment on contemporary HIV/AIDS related events.

    With that I can start with the first post on this blog.

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