Antiretroviral Therapies for HIV/AIDS

Antiretroviral Therapies for HIV/AIDS
David Cooper
Professor David Cooper
Professor David Cooper, Director of UNSW’s Kirby Institute, at the medical research labs in Sydney.
Since diagnosing Australia’s first case of HIV, UNSW’s Professor David Cooper has been involved in the development of every existing antiretroviral HIV drug.

In 1987, the terrifying Grim Reaper ads haunted Australian homes through our television sets, warning of an AIDS pandemic. At that time, HIV/AIDS was a death sentence.

These days, thanks to effective antiretroviral therapies (ART), HIV is largely a manageable condition, and HIV positive people in developed countries like Australia can expect to live vastly longer, healthier lives than in those early days. 

Since 1984, when he diagnosed Australia’s first case of HIV infection, Scientia Professor David Cooper, Director of the Kirby Institute at UNSW, has been involved with the development of every existing combination ART for HIV on the market.

“In those early days of the epidemic, there was only one HIV drug available – AZT – and it came with some appalling side effects,” says Professor Cooper. “But the evolution of treatments has been nothing short of amazing.” 

Not only do today's drug treatments allow HIV positive people to live longer and healthier lives, they dramatically reduce their capacity to pass on infection. In fact, treatment with drugs has been shown to prevent transmission of HIV in 96% of cases trialled, and prevent transmission from pregnant mother to child in as many as 98% of cases.

Recent attention has also turned to treating sexually active individuals who are not HIV positive, in order to prevent the acquisition of the virus. This treatment may be offered before or after a sexual encounter – the HIV equivalent of the morning-after pill.

Despite tremendous progress, HIV/AIDS remains the world’s leading infectious killer, claiming more than 1.6 million lives each year. To help curb that staggering number, researchers at the Kirby Institute are examining the effects of treating HIV earlier, before the virus can damage the immune system, cause sickness and be easily spread. This crucial research is being conducted through the START (Strategic Timing of Antiretroviral Treatment) study, which is contributing to a growing body of evidence that has convinced the World Health Organization to recommend earlier treatment of millions of HIV-infected people.

Although prevention and drug management to suppress HIV are considered our current best defences, millions of people with HIV are being denied lifesaving treatments because the cost of drugs puts them well out of reach. But researchers at the Kirby Institute have found a sensible solution to this issue as well. Through a landmark international study called ENCORE, Professor Sean Emery and his team have been able to show that HIV can be treated safely and effectively with a lower dose of an important HIV drug.

“This should translate into a lower cost of treatment and permit more effective and efficient use of health care resources,” says Professor Emery. “Essentially, more people could receive this lifesaving treatment for the same amount of funding.”

"The Kirby Institute is at the forefront of research on therapies and strategies that will help millions of people. Here are real heroes of science, medicine and clinical practice. I honour them. We can be proud of them."
The Honourable Michael Kirby AC CMG, former Justice of the High Court of Australia and patron of the Kirby Institute