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Study: Early HIV treatment slows spread of disease

CHAPEL HILL — A multinational study headed by a UNC-Chapel Hill researcher has led to a discovery that could help slow the spread of HIV.

Early treatment of heterosexual HIV patients with antiretroviral drugs sharply reduces the chances they will transmit the virus, according to results of the nine-nation study released Thursday.

HIV is the virus that causes AIDS. The $73 million study found that people with HIV are 96 percent less likely to spread it to a partner if they're placed on the regimen of drugs sooner than normal, a startling result that triggered international media coverage.

Dr. Myron Cohen, a professor of medicine, microbiology and immunology, and public health at UNC and director of the UNC Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases, is the principal investigator of the study, which he designed and organized.

Cohen said Thursday that he was elated by the results and overwhelmed by the attention they were getting. He is widely recognized as an international authority on the transmission and prevention of HIV/AIDS, and has spent more than two decades building a team at the university to study those topics.

Cohen announced the findings in a morning media telephone conference with an official from the National Institutes of Health, which paid for the study. Then he spent much of the rest of the day on the phone with journalists from the BBC, NBC, CBS, the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times and the Washington Post.

The study began in 2005 and had been expected to last until 2015. But the results were so profound that an independent monitoring board recommended that researchers release their findings early and tell the study participants.

"That was April 28, and I was just gobsmacked by the fact that we had essentially proven the hypothesis," Cohen said.

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