An HIV prevention study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s School of Medicine has been named the 2011 Breakthrough of the Year by the journal Science.

The study found that early treatment with antiretroviral therapy reduced HIV transmission by at least 96 percent.

“From the time the first AIDS drugs were developed in the mid-1990s, our UNC team of virologists, pharmacologists and physicians has been working on the idea that antiretrovirals might make people less contagious,” Dr. Myron Cohen, UNC professor of medicine, microbiology and epidemiology, said in a statement. “By 2000, the UNC study team thought the idea was strong enough to try to prove it.”

The work was done by The HIV Prevention Trials Network 052, which evaluated whether antiretroviral drugs can prevent sexual transmission of HIV among couples in which one partner has HIV and the other does not. The research found that early treatment with antiretroviral therapy reduced HIV transmission in couples by at least 96 percent, the university said.

The researchers published their work in The New England Journal of Medicine in August.

Science earlier had profiled Kimberly Powers, a UNC School of Public Health and Department of Medicine post-doctoral student who contributed to the work in Cohen’s lab. She joined the research in 2004, Science said, “contributing epidemiology research and mathematical models that have helped scale up the HPTN studies.”

The study was funded by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, part of the National Institutes of Health.

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