Scientist report setbacks in quest for AIDS cure

(AFP) — Scientists have reported several setbacks in the quest for a cure to AIDS, highlighting concerns about inconclusive evidence that links a promising new drug to birth defects.

According to research presented at the 22nd International AIDS Conference in Amsterdam today, four cases of “neural tube” defects were recorded among the pregnancies of 426 HIV-positive women in Botswana who took the drug dolutegravir before conception.

Neural tube defects cause severe brain and spinal deformities in the first weeks after conception, and often lead to stillbirth.

The cases amount to a ratio of nearly one defect per 100 pregnancies, compared to the average population rate of about one per 1,000, researcher Rebecca Zash of the Harvard TH Chan School of Public Health explained.

The defects were observed between August 2014 and May this year.

There have been no new reports among the 170 dolutegravir pregnancies monitored since, but “I don’t think we can take much reassurance” from that, Zash said.

Four birth defects in 596 pregnancies was “still seven times higher than other groups, and statistically significant”, she added.

Dolutegravir is a relatively new HIV-suppressor with fewer side-effects and believed to be less likely to spark drug resistance in patients.

Countries targeted by the US PEPFAR AIDS relief fund were on the cusp of rolling it out as the leading antiretroviral therapy (ART), International AIDS Society president Linda-Gail Bekker told AFP.