Antiretroviral drugs are medications for the treatment of infection by retroviruses, primarily HIV. Different classes of antiretroviral drugs act at different stages of the HIV life cycle. Combination of several (typically three or four) antiretroviral drugs is known as Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy (HAART). more...
Organizations such as the National Institutes of Health (Bethesda, Maryland, USA) recommend offering antiretroviral treatment to all patients with HIV-related symptoms. However, because of the complexity of selecting and following a regimen, the severity of the side effects, and the importance of compliance to prevent viral resistance, such organizations emphasize the importance of involving patients in therapy choices and recommend analyzing the risks and the potential benefits to patients without symptoms.
The life cycle of HIV can be as short as about 1.5 days: from viral entry into a cell; through replication, assembly, and release of additional viruses; to infection of other cells. HIV lacks proofreading enzymes to correct errors made when it converts its RNA into DNA via reverse transcription. Its short life cycle and high error rate cause the virus to mutate very rapidly, resulting in a high genetic variability of HIV. Most of the mutations either are inferior to the parent virus (often lacking the ability to reproduce at all) or convey no advantage, but some of them have a natural selection superiority to their parent and can enable them to slip past defenses such as the human immune system and antiretroviral drugs. The more active copies of the virus, the greater the possibility that one resistant to antiretroviral drugs will be made, so antiretroviral combination therapy defends against resistance by suppressing HIV replication as much as possible.
Combinations of antiretrovirals create multiple obstacles to HIV replication to keep the number of offspring low and reduce the possibility of a superior mutation. If a mutation arises that conveys resistance to one of the drugs being taken, the other drugs continue to suppress reproduction of that mutation. With rare exceptions, no individual antiretroviral drug has been demonstrated to suppress an HIV infection for long; these agents must be taken in combinations in order to have a lasting effect. As a result the standard of care is to use combinations of antiretroviral drugs.
Combinations of antiretrovirals are subject to positive and negative synergies, which limits the number of useful combinations. For example, ddI and AZT inhibit each other, so taking them together is less effective than taking either one separately. Other issues further limit some people's treatment options from antiretroviral drug combinations, including their complicated dosing schedules and often severe side effects.
Current treatment guidelines
Antiretroviral drug treatment guidelines have changed many times. Early recommendations attempted a "hit hard, hit early" approach. A more conservative approach followed, with a starting point somewhere between 350 and 500 CD4+ T cells/mm³. The current guidelines use new criteria to consider starting HAART, as described below. However, there remain a range of views on this subject and the decision of whether to commence treatment ultimately rests with the patient and their doctor.
Read more at Wikipedia.org