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Worldwide Scientists Convene in Marseilles to Tackle Deadly Viruses

by Winnie McCroy
EDGE Editor
Tuesday May 20, 2014

On May 21-23, more than 900 top experts will convene in Marseilles for the International Symposium on HIV and Emerging Infectious Diseases (ISHEID). The conference will focus on current major viral epidemics and pandemics like HIV, Hepatitis C, and newer viral menaces facing humanity today.

"This meeting is a unique opportunity for doctors and researchers to share their work in order to find ways to end viral epidemics and pandemics with new therapeutic and preventive approaches," said Alain Lafeuillade, MD, President of the ISHEID.

Held under the auspices of the French agency for AIDS and viral hepatitis research (ANRS), the gathering will focus on HIV/AIDS and Hepatitis C Virus (HCV), as well as emerging viral threats such as MERS (Middle East Respiratory Syndrome) Coronavirus, Hepatitis E, and new deadly flu strains.

The ISHEID comes at a particularly critical time because of alarming new viral threats that are emerging, even as researchers still struggle to conquer the existing ones. It seems that for every step forward there are a few steps back. For instance, breakthrough therapies for Hepatitis C Virus, which can induce liver cirrhosis and cancer and has infected an estimated 350 million people worldwide, offer the promise of a cure for virtually every patient. The catch? It comes at a jaw-dropping cost of $100,000 Euros for a single treatment (or in the US, an average of $84,000 for a twelve-week treatment).

The extravagantly high cost of the new HCV therapy means that only a limited number of patients can afford it, and it can't be implemented at all in most countries where the majority of HCV patients reside. This ethical and logistical dilemma, as well as the new therapeutic tools for HCV, will be discussed at the ISHEID by Jurgen Rockstroh (Bonn, Germany), Vicente Soriano (Madrid, Spain), Marc Bourliere (Marseilles, France) and Fabien Zoulim (Lyon, France), among others.

While the cure for HCV seems to be just around the corner, research for a cure for HIV is still ongoing, and finding that cure is a primary focus of many of the experts who are attending ISHEID. HIV, or Human Immunodeficiency Virus, was first recognized in the early 1980s and presently infects 35 million individuals worldwide. HIV cannot yet be eradicated from an infected host, and it leads to AIDS and ultimately to death without antiretroviral therapy.

In Western countries more than 30 different drugs are available to block HIV replication and stop disease progression, but because of viral reservoirs containing latent proviruses, this treatment is lifelong unless HIV replication rekindles. This leads to problems of compliance, resistance, toxicity and cost. The search for a functional HIV cure -- meaning HIV replication could be controlled without continuing antiretroviral therapy -- is on the front burners. Recent findings regarding this cure, and future directions, will be addressed at the ISHEID by Liang Shan (Baltimore, MD, USA), Ole Schmeltz Sogaard (Aarhus, Denmark), and Jan Van Lunzen (Hamburg, Germany), among others.

The West has no monopoly on HIV/AIDS, of course; there are an estimated 29 million HIV-infected individuals in Saharan Africa and Asia, and as most lack access to antiretroviral therapy, they are spreading the epidemic. Means to control the spread will be discussed by Myron Cohen, MD (Chapel Hill, NC, USA) and Joep Lange (Amsterdam, the Netherlands). Marc Girard (Paris, France) will give an update on anti-HIV vaccine development.

One possibility, albeit a controversial one, is to use antiretroviral therapy as prevention for people at risk of HIV but not yet infected. But the ideal response would be a preventive HIV vaccine.

"A preventative HIV vaccine may be feasible, but there is still a long way to go until this will become a reality," said Professor Jose Gatell at the University of Barcelona in Spain.

The experts at ISHEID represent a network of researchers ready to face new and emerging viral epidemics as well. Among those slated to be discussed at the 2014 conference are viral hepatitis E (Henry Dalton, Truro, UK), the new deadly H7N9 flu strain (Bruno Lina, Lyon, France) and the new deadly Middle East Respiratory Syndrome Coronavirus (Marcel Muller, Bonn, Germany).

"ISHEID brings together a great international group of scientists," said the University of Bonn’s Professor J├╝rgen.

"ISHEID is a well balanced meeting with up to date scientific research and translational medicine, taking you from bench to bedside and vice versa., echoed Professor Guido Poli of Milan, Italy.

The 2012 ISHEID attracted more than 1,000 participants from 48 countries, and the 2014 event is expected to be equally successful. In fact the sponsors hope it will attract many more participants outside of the field of HIV research and therapy.

"It will be an outstanding meeting, with excellent media coverage," said ISHEID president Dr. Lafeuillade. "In 2014 viral diseases remain a major cause of death in the world, and new strains have the ability to kill millions of people if we do not control their spread. We have effective therapies for some viruses, though there are cost issues of course, but we are still unarmed against others. Uniting virologists, immunologists and medical doctors at the ISHEID is one of the most effective ways to move forward."

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Winnie McCroy is the Women on the EDGE Editor, HIV/Health Editor, and Assistant Entertainment Editor for EDGE Media Network, handling all women's news, HIV health stories and theater reviews throughout the U.S. She has contributed to other publications, including The Village Voice, Gay City News, Chelsea Now and The Advocate, and lives in Brooklyn, New York.


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