A promising treatment now available in Canada is providing new hope for people living with HIV and is just the latest in what one local expert calls a remarkable evolution of medication.
Stribild was recently approved by Health Canada and is a combination of different antiviral medicines in one pill.
It means new hope for thousands of Albertans living with HIV, including Jeffrey Keller.
When Keller was diagnosed with the virus in 1994, he was told his life would soon end.
“At that time I was told I had seven years to live. It was like, this is it,” Keller said.
But with the help of advancements in medication, the law student has lived long past predicted.
“I was told I would be dead in my 30s, to here I am in 40s worried about getting old,” he said.
Keller began using AZT after his diagnosis, which was the only drug available at the time.
“I was taking it three times a day, I can’t remember how many pills. It was bad. It would numb me up, it would make me sick, gastro-intestinal stuff, it was not a fun drug to take but it was all that was there,” Keller said.
After AZT, Keller went through a number of different treatments but they proved difficult to manage.
“That was hell. That was really horrible because it’s three different pills, some you couldn’t take at the same time, some you couldn’t take with food,” Keller said. “Throughout the day I was constantly chasing the pills.”
Stephen Shafran, professor of medicine with the University of Alberta, says the newly-approved Stribild is one of just three single-tablet regimens available for people living with HIV.
“It has actually four drugs in it, three of which are active anti-virals and one of which is kind of a booster that enhances the effectiveness of the three anti-virals in there,” Shafran said.
The antiviral pill is part of what Shafran says has been a remarkable evolution of treatment to keep HIV from developing into AIDS, which causes a body's immune system to break down and leaves people vulnerable to infections that are eventually fatal.
When the virus was first discovered, Shafran says those who ended up being diagnosed with AIDS would have about 18 months to live.
“It was just a terrible, terrible time where we would see young people in the prime of their lives struck with an illness that was really very devastating and we had no anti-viral treatments,” he said.
The first drug was created in 1987, six years after the virus was discovered. Almost 10 years later, scientists developed a treatment regimen that included multiple pills and although it was complicated, Shafran says it worked.
“It was revolutionary because all of a sudden we saw the mortality rates of HIV plummet,” he said.
Now patients are living significantly longer than ever before.
“Projections are that life expectancy of HIV patients who take modern anti-viral therapy look to be very close to the general population. It’s really a revolutionary change,” Shafran said.
But even with medical advancements, HIV remains a major health issue.
It’s estimated 5,000 Albertans are infected and about 200 people are diagnosed with HIV each year.
Statistics from HIV Edmonton show a person is diagnosed every two days.
“Any new possibility out there is great for all of us,” Keller said.
“There are in fact other single-tablet regimens that are in clinical studies right now,” Shafran said.
And while Keller says new developments in treatment are encouraging, it’s still not a cure.
“I lost a friend last year. We’re still dying,” Keller said.
“It’s still not necessarily the end. It’s extending lives but it’s not a cure.”
Shafran says Stribild is now being reviewed for funding by the Alberta government.
He hopes to make it available for his patients in the coming months.
With files from Carmen Leibel