Tackling HIV with Antiretroviral Therapy (ART): Insights from the START Trial

The Strategic Timing of AntiRetroviral Treatment (START) trial has significantly influenced our understanding and treatment approach towards HIV infection. This landmark international study definitively answered the long-standing question about when to begin antiretroviral therapy (ART) for HIV-positive individuals. This article explores the pivotal START trial and its profound impact on HIV treatment strategies worldwide.

START Trial: Origin and Purpose

The START trial emerged in response to a critical question in HIV management: when should ART initiation occur? Before the trial, physicians typically delayed ART until the patient’s CD4 cell count—a key measure of immune system health—dropped below a certain level. However, the potential benefits and risks of early ART initiation remained uncertain.

This ambiguity led to the genesis of the START trial in 2009, conducted under the International Network for Strategic Initiatives in Global HIV Trials. The study aimed to determine whether starting ART immediately upon HIV diagnosis, regardless of CD4 count, would result in better health outcomes compared to delaying treatment.

Researchers from 35 countries enrolled 4685 HIV-positive individuals with CD4 counts above 500 cells/mm3, who had not yet begun ART. Participants were randomly assigned to either start ART immediately or delay it until their CD4 count dropped below 350 cells/mm3 or AIDS developed. The study monitored various health outcomes, from AIDS-related events to serious non-AIDS events and death.

Key Findings: Immediate vs. Delayed ART

The START trial concluded ahead of schedule in 2015 due to its compelling findings. The results showed a clear benefit to starting ART immediately upon HIV diagnosis. Participants in the immediate treatment group had a significantly lower risk of developing AIDS-related illnesses or other serious complications than those in the delayed treatment group.

Moreover, the trial found that early ART significantly reduced the risk of serious non-AIDS events, such as major cardiovascular disease, kidney disease, liver disease, and non-AIDS defining cancers. These findings highlighted the benefits of early ART beyond merely preventing AIDS.

Importantly, the trial also demonstrated the safety of early ART initiation. Concerns about potential drug toxicity and development of drug resistance had previously been reasons to delay therapy. However, the START trial found no significant difference in the rate of adverse drug-related events between the two groups, supporting the safety of immediate treatment initiation.

Impact on HIV Treatment Guidelines

The START trial’s findings had a profound effect on global HIV treatment guidelines. The World Health Organization (WHO), Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), and other leading health organizations swiftly revised their guidelines to recommend immediate ART initiation for all individuals living with HIV, regardless of their CD4 cell count.

This significant policy change, commonly referred to as “treat-all,” marked a paradigm shift in HIV management. It underscored the concept of HIV treatment as prevention, as effective ART reduces the viral load to undetectable levels, drastically reducing the risk of transmission.

The START trial also contributed to the development of the UNAIDS 90-90-90 targets, aimed at diagnosing 90% of all HIV-positive persons, providing ART for 90% of those diagnosed, and achieving viral suppression for 90% of those treated by 2020. These targets highlight the pivotal role of ART in controlling the HIV epidemic.

Influence on Global HIV Control Strategies

The results of the START trial have also influenced global strategies for controlling the HIV epidemic. The evidence for early treatment, coupled with the recognition of treatment as prevention, has led to substantial efforts to scale up HIV testing and treatment programs worldwide.

As part of these strategies, many countries have implemented universal “test and treat” policies, where every individual tested for HIV, if diagnosed positive, receives immediate treatment. These efforts aim to improve individual health outcomes, reduce new HIV infections, and move closer to the goal of ending the HIV epidemic.

In addition, the START trial’s findings have catalyzed efforts to improve access to ART, particularly in low- and middle-income countries heavily burdened by the HIV epidemic. Various global health initiatives, such as the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis, and Malaria, have used the evidence from START to advocate for and fund ART access expansion.

HIV START Insights: ART and Quality of Life

The START trial didn’t just focus on clinical outcomes; it also assessed the impact of early ART on the quality of life. Before the trial, some argued that delaying treatment might be better for patients’ overall well-being, avoiding potential side effects from the medication.

However, findings from the START trial challenged this notion. Participants who started ART early reported better overall health and quality of life than those who delayed treatment. These results highlighted that immediate ART not only helps prevent serious illnesses but also contributes to improved well-being, further strengthening the case for early treatment.

Secondary Studies: Understanding Comorbidities

One of the unique aspects of the START trial was its design to facilitate secondary studies. These sub-studies provided valuable insights into various comorbidities often seen in people living with HIV.

For instance, a sub-study investigating the effect of early ART on kidney function found that immediate ART helped preserve kidney function better than delayed treatment. Another sub-study focused on neurocognitive function demonstrated that early ART protected against HIV-associated cognitive decline.

These secondary studies underlined the far-reaching benefits of immediate ART initiation. They also contributed to a more holistic understanding of HIV and its impacts on different body systems, informing care and management strategies for individuals living with HIV.

Early ART: Economic Considerations

The shift towards early ART, prompted by the START trial, also raises important economic considerations. While initiating ART immediately upon diagnosis increases upfront treatment costs, it can lead to substantial savings in the long run by preventing AIDS-related illnesses and other serious health events.

Moreover, the economic benefits of early ART aren’t limited to healthcare savings alone. By preserving health, enhancing productivity, and reducing HIV transmission, immediate ART can contribute to economic growth and societal development. Therefore, while early ART requires an initial investment, it’s an economically sound strategy from a societal perspective.

Tackling Challenges: Adherence and Resistance

Despite the clear benefits of immediate ART, the strategy poses some challenges. Adherence to medication, a crucial factor for treatment success, can be particularly challenging when individuals start treatment early, often before they experience any symptoms.

Moreover, widespread use of ART has led to concerns about the potential increase in drug-resistant HIV strains. Ensuring access to resistance testing and second-line therapies is critical as we move towards a treat-all approach.

Addressing these challenges requires a comprehensive approach, including patient education, support systems, routine monitoring, and ongoing research to develop newer, more effective, and more tolerable ART regimens.


In conclusion, the START trial has revolutionized the treatment approach towards HIV infection, establishing the clear benefits of immediate ART initiation. Its influence on global HIV treatment guidelines, control strategies, and patient quality of life is profound and far-reaching. As we strive towards the goal of ending the HIV epidemic, the insights from the START trial serve as a vital guide, illuminating the path towards a world free from HIV/AIDS.




Leave a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Scroll to Top


The information provided on this website is for general informational purposes only and is not intended to serve as a substitute for professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. AP Medical Research makes no representation or warranty, express or implied, concerning the accuracy, completeness, or suitability of the information contained herein. Reliance on any information provided on this website is solely at your own risk.

Users of this website should not make any decisions regarding their medical care, treatment, or participation in clinical trials based solely on the content of this website. Users should always consult with a healthcare professional regarding any questions or concerns about their medical condition or any medical treatments, including but not limited to the clinical trials mentioned on this website.

AP Medical Research, its affiliates, and their respective officers, directors, employees, and agents shall not be held liable for any damages, including direct, indirect, incidental, special, or consequential damages, arising out of or in connection with the use of this website or any information provided herein. By using this website, you agree to indemnify and hold harmless AP Medical Research and its affiliates from and against any and all claims, liabilities, and losses arising out of your use of this website or any information provided herein.