A small HIV study carried out in France has raised hopes of finding a “functional cure”.

Twelve patients were able to stop taking HIV medication and maintained a low level of the virus in their bodies for a median of six years.

The patients began taking anti-retroviral drugs ten weeks after contracting the virus but stopped taking the drugs after three years. Usually, HIV patients who stop taking medication experience rising levels of the HIV virus, which eventually leads to AIDS.

However, the patients maintained extremely low levels of the virus in their bodies and did not become ill.

More research is being done into ‘controllers’ – people who do not become ill despite HIV infection. Hopes for a “functional cure” centre on finding treatment that keeps HIV levels very low, rather than eliminating it entirely.

Charline Bacchus, lead researcher of the study at France’s national AIDS research agency ANRS, told AFP: “These results suggest that the anti-retroviral treatment should be started very early after infection.

“Six years after interruption of treatment, patients treated early on in the post-infection period present a perfect ability to control the HIV infection.”