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Five stand-out findings from IAS 2023

Hester Phillips

10 August 2023

Our take on the most exciting research at the 12th International AIDS Society Conference on HIV Science

Close up of a visionary female speaker smiling and looking at the audience
Photos are used for illustrative purposes. They do not imply health status or behaviour. Credit: iStock/ Anchiy

The International AIDS Society Conference on HIV Science happens every other year. The conference is a chance to share and discuss cutting-edge advances in HIV prevention, treatment and cure research. Around 5,000 people attended IAS 2023 in Brisbane, Australia and online at the end of July. Here are five standout moments. 

The cancer drug that could help cure HIV 

Research in Australia suggests a widely used cancer drug could hold a vital clue in the search for an HIV cure. The study tested venetoclax, which is used to treat blood cancer, on ‘humanised mice’ (mice that are genetically modified to model human cell processes).  

The aim was to see if venetoclax was able to attack latent HIV, which are cells that contain HIV but are not actively producing the virus. When someone first gets HIV, pools of these cells (called ‘latent HIV reservoirs’) form. Although antiretroviral treatment can reduce the level of HIV in the blood to an undetectable level, it cannot get rid of latent reservoirs. And if someone’s treatment stops working, these reservoirs can start to produce HIV, which increases their viral load.  

In mice, venetoclax was able to deplete latent HIV cells and therefore delay viral rebound. Venetoclax will now be tested on humans in a clinical trial in Australia and Denmark as a potential “pathway” to an HIV cure

The first VMMC trial on men who have sex with men 

In China, the world’s first randomised controlled trial of voluntary medical male circumcision (VMMC) for men who have sex with men reported exciting findings. The research from Sun Yat-sen University in Shenzhen found VMMC is “very likely” to stop men who have insertive anal sex from getting HIV. Around 250 men took part in the trial. Half had immediate VMMC and half delayed it. In the group that had immediate VMMC, no man got HIV, compared to five men in the other group.  

African women show huge preference for PrEP injections over pills  

A study in seven African countries found nearly eight out of 10 cisgender women preferred PrEP injections to PrEP pills. The study took place in Botswana, Eswatini, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Uganda and Zimbabwe with 2,500 women. It found that 78% preferred to come for a PrEP injection every eight weeks, compared to 22% who preferred to take a PrEP pill every day. Injectable PrEP will now be rolled out in multiple African countries. 

World Health Organization confirms U=U 

The World Health Organisation (WHO) used IAS 2023 to launch its new policy brief on viral suppression. The brief fully endorses the message of undetectable equals untransmittable (U=U) by stating that people with HIV with an undetectable viral load have “zero risk” of passing HIV on through sex as long as they are taking their medication as prescribed.  

You can read more about the different levels of viral suppression in our news story and in IAS’s What you need to know guide. 

Mpox: the link between hospitalisation and HIV viral load  

More from the WHO came in the form of new research which suggests that people with HIV who get mpox are no more likely to be hospitalised than other people – unless they are virally unsuppressed.  

The finding is based on an analysis of more than 82,000 mpox cases reported to the WHO’s global surveillance system in 2022. Information on HIV status was available for 39% of cases, half of which (52%) were people with HIV. The majority of people with HIV and mpox identified as gay, bisexual or a man who has sex with men. This provides further evidence of the urgent need to connect mpox and HIV services, especially for men who have sex with men. 

Commenting on the conference, Sharon Lewin, IAS President, said: “This is an incredibly exciting time in HIV research, and the studies at IAS 2023 reflect that. The science presented at this conference will guide rollout of game-changing prevention tools like long-acting PrEP, shed light on how to reduce the impact of mpox and COVID-19 on people living with HIV, and identify new approaches to achieve an HIV cure.”  

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