Antiretroviral drugs are medications for the treatment of infection by retroviruses, primarily HIV. When several such drugs, typically three or four, are taken in combination, the approach is known as highly active antiretroviral therapy, or HAART. The National Institutes of Health and other organizations recommend offering antiretroviral treatment to all patients with AIDS. Because of the complexity of selecting and following a regimen, the severity of the side effects and the importance of compliance to prevent viral resistance, however, such organizations emphasize the importance of involving patients in therapy choices and recommend analyzing the risks and the potential benefits to patients without symptoms.
There are different classes of antiretroviral drug that act at different stages of the HIV life cycle.
Combinations of antiretrovirals create multiple obstacles to HIV replication to keep the number of offspring low and reduce the possibility of a superior mutation. If a mutation arises that conveys resistance to one of the drugs being taken, the other drugs continue to suppress reproduction of that mutation. With rare exceptions, no individual antiretroviral drug has been demonstrated to suppress an HIV infection for long; these agents must be taken in combinations in order to have a lasting effect. As a result, the standard of care is to use combinations of antiretroviral drugs. Combinations usually comprise two nucleoside-analogue RTIs and one non-nucleoside-analogue RTI or protease inhibitor. This three drug combination is commonly known as a triple cocktail.
Combinations of antiretrovirals are subject to positive and negative synergies, which limits the number of useful combinations. For example, ddI and AZT inhibit each other, so taking them together is less effective than taking either one separately. Other issues further limit some people's treatment options from antiretroviral drug combinations, including their complicated dosing schedules and often severe side effects.
In recent years drug companies have worked together to combine these complex regimens into simpler formulas, termed fixed dose combinations. For instance, two pills containing two or three medications each can be taken twice daily. This greatly increases the ease with which they can be taken, which in turn increases adherence, and thus their effectiveness over the long-term. Lack of adherence is a primary cause of resistance development in medication-experienced patients. Patients able to adhere at this rate and higher can maintain one regimen for up to a decade without developing resistance. This greatly increases chances of long-term survival, as it leaves more drugs available to the patient for longer periods of time.
The current guidelines for antiretroviral therapy (ART) from the World Health Organization reflect the 2003 changes to the guidelines and recommend that in resource-limited settings (that is, developing nations), HIV-infected adults and adolescents should start ART when HIV infection has been confirmed and one of the following conditions is present :
The treatment guidelines in the USA are set by the United States Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS). The current guidelines for adults and adolescents were stated on October 6, 2005 :
The preferred initial regimens are:
In countries with a high rate of baseline resistance, resistance testing is recommended prior to starting treatment; or, if the initiation of treatment is urgent, then a "best guess" treatment regimen should be started which is then modified on the basis of resistance testing. In the UK, there is 11.8% medium to high level resistance at baseline to the combination of efavirenz + zidovudine + lamivudine, and 6.4% medium to high level resistance to stavudine + lamivudine + nevirapine.
Because HIV disease progression in children is more rapid than in adults, and laboratory parameters are less predictive of risk for disease progression, particularly for young infants, treatment recommendations from the DHHS have been more aggressive in children than in adults, the current guidelines were published November 3, 2005 .
In 2005, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the United States recommended a 28-day HIV drug regimen for those who have been exposed to HIV (HIV Postexposure Prophylaxis [PEP]). The WHO recommendations on treatment are that the minimum that should be used is dual NRTIs for 28 days, with triple therapy (dual NRTIs plus a boosted PI) being offered where there is a risk of resistance . The effectiveness of this intervention has never been precisely ascertained, but it is believed to be most effective the sooner the drugs are administered, and useless if treatment is delayed too long; hence it is not usually recommended that it be started on the basis of an exposure more than 76 hours prior to starting therapy.
The use of antiretrovirals is also recommended for the prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV-1. The current WHO recommended regimen is as follows: where the pregnant woman does not yet need to start ART for therapeutic reasons, she should start Zidovudine (AZT) from 28 weeks or as soon as possible thereafter, be provided with single-dose Nevirapine (NVP) when entering labour, and be given AZT+3TC for one week following delivery. Meanwhile, whether the mother was on the above or standard ART, the child should be given single dose Nevirapine immediately after delivery and daily Zidovudine until one week old. Complementary measures that may also be used include caesarian section and formula feeding; in some settings, the combination of providing all these measures has succeeded in reducing the risk of infection from 25% to about 1%.
Research to improve current treatments includes decreasing side effects of current drugs, further simplifying drug regimens to improve adherence, and determining the best sequence of regimens to manage drug resistance.
Recent studies have found that a person's age doesn't interfere with the ability of HAART to reduce viral load, but there may be differences between younger and older people in how well the immune system responds to treatment. A study published in AIDS (2000) by Roberto Manfredi and Francesco Chiodo examined the effect of HAART on older people (defined as 55 or older) compared to younger people (35 or younger). The study included 21 older people (8 women, 13 men) and 84 younger people (29 women, 55 men). The researchers found that both groups responded to HAART, especially in reducing viral load. However, CD4 counts did not increase as much in the older people relative to the younger ones. On average, CD4 counts increased from 212 to 289 for older adults after one year of HAART. During the same period, CD4 counts rose from 231 to 345 for younger people.
Some people may have a very low CD4 count even though they have an undetectable viral load. This may be related to decreased activity in the thymus (the gland where CD4 cells are made). A 2001 study in AIDS conducted by researchers in Los Angeles included 80 HIV-positive veterans (13 were over 55 and 67 were younger). Although both groups of veterans showed dramatic reductions in viral load once they were on treatment, the researchers found significant differences in CD4 levels at 3, 9, 15, and 18 months. After one year on HAART, average CD4 counts increased by 50 for the older men, compared to increases of 100 for the younger ones. This difference was not related to baseline HIV viral load, coinfection with hepatitis C, or the race/ethnicity of participants. These studies represent an important first step in understanding how their age may affect older adults' response to HIV treatment, but more studies are needed to understand the long-term effects of age on HAART in older adults.
If an HIV infection becomes sufficiently resistant to antiretroviral-drugs, treatment becomes more complicated and prognosis may deteriorate. Treatment options continue to improve as additional new drugs enter clinical trials. However, the limited distribution of many such drugs denies their benefits to patients in the developing world.
Drug holidays (or "structured treatment interruptions"), are intentional discontinuations of antiretroviral drug treatment. Studies of such interruptions attempt to increase the sensitivity of HIV to antiretroviral drugs. The interruptions attempt to change the selection pressure from the drug resistance back toward resistance to the human immune system, thus breeding a more drug-susceptible virus. HIV spends some of its life-cycle in a state where its DNA is entirely integrated into human DNA. Under certain conditions, drug-resistant strains of the virus can remain dormant in this state, since CD4 T-cells also are dormant when not aroused by invading organisms. The resistant strain can then reemerge when antiretroviral drugs are re-introduced.
Intermittent therapy is an experimental approach designed to reduce exposure to antiretroviral drugs in an effort to mitigate side-effects. Intermittent therapy differs from treatment interruptions in that it involves using a much shorter cycle of switching on and off the antiviral drugs. Studies of such approaches include schedules of week-on, week-off (also known as "wowo") and five-days-on, two-days-off (also known as "foto"), which skips treatment on weekends. They also seek to determine what kinds of patients are best suited for this approach. However, initial data suggest that intermittent therapy is ineffective and results in drug resistance.
It is still unclear whether suppressing or even eliminating HIV will be adequate to restore normal immune function in the long term, since HIV can damage the ability of the thymus to produce normally diverse T-cells. Also, rapid suppression of HIV and partial restoration of the immune system sometimes produces a dangerous hypersensitivity reaction, immune reconstitution inflammatory syndrome. Research continues in these areas.
High antiretroviral drug adherence key in effort to avoid drug resistance: new study highlights its importance.
Mar 01, 2005; A new study confirms the findings of previous research that antiretroviral drug adherence is a strong predictor of whether drug...
Prevalence of reverse transcriptase and protease mutations associated with antiretroviral drug resistance among drug-naive HIV-1 infected pregnant women in Kagera and Kilimanjaro regions, Tanzania.(Research)(Report)
Jun 21, 2008; Authors: Balthazar M Nyombi (corresponding author) [1,2,3]; Carol Holm-Hansen [2,4]; Knut I Kristiansen ; Gunnar Bjune ;...
The Idea of Prescribing a Daily Antiretroviral Drug to Someone Who Doesn't Have the Aids Virus Might Seem Odd
Aug 05, 2012; The idea of prescribing a daily antiretroviral drug to someone who doesn't have the Aids virus might seem odd. Quarraisha Abdool...