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Landmark HIV trial takes top honors as breakthrough of '11

WASHINGTON -- A landmark clinical trial that showed HIV drugs can be as effective as condoms in preventing transmission of the virus that causes AIDS was declared Science magazine's breakthrough of the year on Thursday.

Other top achievements of 2011 included a Japanese spacecraft's return to Earth with dust from an asteroid, progress toward a malaria vaccine and discoveries about modern humans' gene links to cavemen.

The annual top 10 list by the American Association for the Advancement of Science, which publishes the journal Science, appear in the magazine's Dec. 23 issue.

The lead story of the year was an international trial, coined HPTN 052, which showed that people taking anti-retroviral drugs reduced the risk of heterosexual transmission to partners by 96 percent.

The breakthrough was described by some experts as a tipping point in the fight against AIDS, 30 years after the epidemic first surfaced.

“People were interested in the idea of treatment as prevention, but it created a hurricane-force wind behind the strategy,” said lead investigator Myron Cohen of the University of North Carolina's School of Medicine.

The trial began in 2007, enrolling 1,763 heterosexual couples — in which one partner was HIV positive — from Botswana, Brazil, India, Kenya, Malawi, South Africa, Thailand, the United States and Zimbabwe.

The magazine said the trial will have “profound implications for the future response to the AIDS epidemic.” HIV/AIDS infects an estimated 33 million people worldwide and killed 1.8 million people in 2009.

“The HPTN 052 results and other recent successes have raised hopes that combining such interventions can now end AIDS epidemics in entire countries, if not the world,” the journal said.

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