Researchers at the University of Maryland have discovered a potential new way to treat HIV with a combination of antibodies.

The treatment needs further testing to prove its effectiveness, which is currently estimated at 99 percent for humans, but tests on animals still have to be conducted.

Today, about 36 million people live with the disease, which attacks the body’s immune system, according to the Center for Disease Control. It does not currently have a cure.

HIV is currently considered a “lifelong disease,” according to Yuxing Li, principal investigator at this university’s Institute for Bioscience and Biotechnology Research.

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This is because HIV develops latent disease reservoirs which become ingrained in cells’ DNA. Once the cells reproduce, they replicate the DNA with HIV, which means the disease still exists within the body. The new treatment addresses this.

Li’s research has developed a way to eliminate both the replication of the diseased cells as well as the latent disease reservoir for almost 99 percent of HIV strains. Li and her team discovered that combining and engineering three different antibodies together can accomplish this.

“The single antibody may not be able to eradicate the virus efficiently,” Li said. “But, If you put three [antibodies] together, it’s hard for the virus to escape three at the same time. The antibody offers new hope to cure them and destroy the affected cells, and that’s the promise of curing it.”

The group of researchers published the study, and the next steps are to conduct testing with animals and then with human subjects.

Researchers at this university have made developments in researching a vaccine for the disease, but a completely effective form has not been developed.

Current medication for the disease, called antiretroviral drugs, can prevent the replication of the disease itself, but cannot eliminate the latent disease reservoirs in the body. Cells can also develop resistance to antiretroviral drugs, something that is not possible with this antibody combination, Li said.

There is also medication called prEp which can lower an individual’s chances to contract HIV. However, those most at risk often don’t have access to these forms of prevention or treatment.

Those most at risk for HIV are African-American men, as well as men who have sex with transgender individuals and other men, according to professor Bradley Boekeloo, Director of the University of Maryland’s Prevention Research Center, a research organization focused on researching health disparities in vulnerable populations.

This means that already vulnerable populations are at high risk of contracting HIV.

“People who are most at risk for HIV have the hardest time getting help for it,” said Gretchen De Silva, a lecturer for the School of Public Health and assistant clinical professor for the Department of Epidemiology and Biostatistics.

College students are also at a higher risk for HIV.

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“I worry about college students who have multiple partners or partners they don’t know well, such as in hook-ups, and not using condoms every time they have vaginal or anal intercourse,” Boekeloo said.

Boekeloo said that the treatment available today has already made great strides for those with the disease.

“HIV treatment is now highly efficacious with little side effects, so people who get HIV care and adhere to treatment live normal lives little impacted by HIV,” Boekeloo said.

De Silva said she agrees that HIV has become more manageable over time, but said that new treatment methods have the potential to improve patients lives significantly.

“It’s a very intimate disease that affects very intimate parts of your life, and that makes it a hard diagnosis to handle,” she said.

CORRECTION: Due to an editing error, a previous excerpt for this story incorrectly stated that the treatment has been tested on animals. This story has been updated.