July 16, 2015

World’s top HIV/AIDS researchers converge on Vancouver

This article originally appeared on the University of British Columbia’s website here.

UBC and the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS (BC-CfE) will welcome more than 6,000 of the world’s leading HIV/AIDS experts to Vancouver next week. Researchers, clinicians, community leaders and public health experts will examine the latest scientific developments in HIV research at the 8th International AIDS Society (IAS) Conference on HIV Pathogenesis, Treatment & Prevention.

IAS 2015 is the world’s largest scientific conference on HIV and AIDS. This year’s event is organized by the IAS in partnership with the UBC Division of AIDS and runs from July 19-22.

The IAS Conference was last held in Vancouver in 1996. At the time, nearly one British Columbian was dying every day from AIDS. Today, a person living with HIV who is receiving sustained treatment and care can expect to have a life expectancy approaching that of a non-infected person. In 2014, B.C. repurposed its AIDS ward at St. Paul’s Hospital due to the dramatic decline in AIDS cases in the province.

“We have made great strides in overcoming HIV and AIDS and I’m so proud of the contributions made by UBC researchers and the role of Vancouver and the province in tackling this epidemic,” said Arvind Gupta, president of UBC. “The work, however, is far from finished; worldwide 35 million people live with HIV and 1.5 million died of HIV-related illnesses in 2013. When the IAS Conference begins next week, it offers a critical platform for researchers to meet and discuss how to tackle this disease.”

At the 1996 conference, Dr. Julio Montaner, a professor of Medicine at UBC and director of the BC-CfE, announced the discovery of highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) for HIV. HAART has emerged as the new global standard for treating HIV and the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS (UNAIDS) set an ambitious goal that 15 million people worldwide would receive HAART treatment by 2015.

At the IAS Conference in Toronto in 2006, Dr. Montaner introduced the BC-CfE-pioneered concept of Treatment as Prevention® (TasP®). With this strategy, earlier and sustained access to HAART reduces the amount of HIV virus in a person’s blood and sexual fluids to undetectable levels, thus preventing the spread of HIV.

B.C. adopted the TasP® strategy early and continues to be a world leader in the fight against HIV/AIDS. Since 1994, the number of new HIV cases has declined 65 per cent and the number of new AIDS cases has dropped by 88 per cent. In the same period, there has been an 83 per cent decline in AIDS-related deaths.

TasP® now forms the backbone of the 90-90-90 strategy, which UNAIDS unveiled last year at the IAS Conference in Sydney. The United Nations also adopted it as its HIV/AIDS strategy in September 2014. The UNAIDS 90-90-90 strategy aims to end AIDS globally by 2030. By 2020, the goal is to have 90 per cent of people aware of their HIV status, 90 per cent of those with the disease on regular antiretroviral therapy, and 90 per cent of those on treatment with undetectable viral loads.

“We are at a turning point and the end of AIDS could happen during my lifetime,” said Dr. Julio Montaner, a professor of Medicine, Director of the BC-CfE, and a leading researcher on HIV/AIDS and related illnesses. “The 90-90-90 goals put us on track, but leaders from around the world must invest in treatment for those living with HIV. With the IAS Conference in Vancouver, it is a time to honour the important progress made to date and call to light the need for continued vigilance.”

Dr. Montaner has been the head of the UBC Division of AIDS since 2007; UBC was the first Canadian university to create such a unit, and the third in North America.

Video below: Dr. Julio Montaner, on HIV/AIDS treatment and prevention