More than 50 years after it jumped the species barrier and became one of the most devastating viruses to affect mankind, HIV remains a stubborn adversary. Treatment has improved dramatically over the past 20 years, but people who are infected will remain so for the rest of their lives, and must take one pill daily – at one time it was a cocktail of 30.

But now, as another World Aids Day pulls into view, scientists are beginning to ask if the biggest breakthrough – an out-and-out cure for the tens of millions who have contracted the virus – could be in sight.

The excitement lies in research that is having some success in drawing the virus out of a latent stage (in which it can lie undetected for long periods) so that it could be destroyed.

“The last couple of years have been very exciting on this front,” said Satish Pillai, an associate professor in HIV research from the University of California San Francisco. “We’re now attempting find the holy grail of HIV research.”

“In the first instance, we want to identify the signature characteristics, in a reliable and accurate way, of latently infected cells,” Pillai said, speaking of HIV-infected cells that evade current treatments. “The other side is that we’re developing novel strategies to destroy them once we’re able to identify them.”

“We’re entering this new era of finding a functional cure to eradicate the virus,’ he explains.

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