A snapshot of advancements in HIV treatment since the discovery of the virus in the 1980s includes:
In 1987, scientists reached the first milestone, with the discovery that nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors (NRTIs) slowed the progression of AIDS in advanced cases. Through additional testing, researchers realized the medicine also helped manage symptoms for children and people in the early stages of the disease. Yet while NRTIs were an important first step, more research was badly needed: By 1993, HIV infection became the leading cause of death for Americans aged 25-44.
Almost 10 years later, in 1995, biopharmaceutical researchers hit another breakthrough: the discovery of protease inhibitors, which halted the growth of the disease by preventing infected cells from duplicating and spreading the HIV virus. These new treatments marked the beginning of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART), which quickly revolutionized the fight against HIV/AIDS. In 1997, AIDS-related deaths in the U.S. decreased by 47% from the previous year, the first substantial decline since the disease was discovered.
Over the years, as scientists continued to learn about HIV, treatment regimens became simpler and led to fewer side effects. In particular, the development of combination therapies reduced many people’s treatment regimens from multiple times per day to a single, once-a-day medicine. Collectively, these advancements not only helped improve adherence, but also allowed people with HIV to live longer, fuller lives.
Within the last decade, the fight against HIV/AIDS made another significant leap forward, with the development of medicines that can prevent the transmission of HIV, called pre-exposure prophylaxis medicines (PrEP). Designed for populations at an increased risk of HIV infection, when taken daily, PrEP regimens have been shown to reduce risk of HIV infection by between 74% and 99%, depending on the population.
Today, the fight continues with the search for additional treatment, as well as a vaccine, which could stop the spread of HIV by teaching the immune systems of healthy people how to fight off HIV before they are ever exposed. A 2020 report found there are nearly 260 vaccines in development, including candidates designed to target and prevent HIV. One such vaccine contains mosaic immunogens—molecules designed to trigger an immune response against the wide variety of HIV strains responsible for the epidemic. It is currently being tested for efficacy in large-scale clinical trials taking place across four continents.