Treating HIV patients with antiretroviral medication soon after they become infected may allow some of them to eventually stop taking the drugs, intriguing new research suggests.

Such an achievement would represent a “functional cure” from HIV, researchers say -- meaning the virus is still detectable in the patients, but is at low levels even without medication.

The research, published Thursday in the journal PLoS Pathogens, comes on the heels of a report last week that a baby in Mississippi appeared to be functionally cured of HIV after receiving aggressive antiretroviral drug treatment within 30 hours of birth.

"(These data) and the Mississippi study strongly support early treatment initiation and may hold important clues for the development of a strategy to cure HIV or at least induce a long-term control without the need of antiretroviral treatment," the lead researcher of this latest study, Asier Saez-Cirion of the Institut Pasteur in Paris, told Reuters.

For this study, 14 people living in France and ranging in age from 34 to 66 were treated with antiretroviral drugs within 10 weeks of their infections. They then stopped treatment, on average, approximately three years later.

Each member of the group has since been able to keep levels of HIV under control for a median of 7.5 years, without drugs.

Saez-Cirion says it’s not clear how these patients are continuing to fight their HIV. It’s also not clear whether all HIV patients could be treated in a similar way.

But Saez-Cirion told the AFP news agency that the study represents a “proof of concept” that control of the virus can be achieved with early treatment.

Most HIV patients have to take antiretroviral therapy their whole lives. That’s because the virus has a way of establishing “reservoirs” in cells that allow it to hide. If patients stop their meds, the virus can make a resurgence and begin to multiply again.

It’s possible that treating the virus soon after infection limits the virus’ ability to establish “reservoirs,” said another member of the research team, Christine Rouzioux, who was also part of the team that identified HIV 30 years ago.

Early treatment might also limit viral mutations, or might help to preserve immune responses, she said.

More than 34 million people are currently infected with HIV across the world. There were also 2.5 million new infections in 2011, according to the United National AIDS programme (UNAIDS).