British newspapers are reporting that scientists in the United Kingdom believe they may have cured a man who was positive for human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) infection. If the claim turns out to be true, it would mark the first time a person has been cured of HIV without needing a bone marrow transplant.
The new treatment is a two-stage process. The first stage consists of killing HIV-infected cells using standard antiretroviral drugs. The second stage involves an innovative process in which HIV in dormant T-cells is reactivated, and a vaccine induces the immune system to find and destroy the infected cells.
Fifty patients have been enrolled in the study, which is being conducted by five of Britain’s top universities. The researchers reported that the first patient tested as virus-free, but they know that isn’t a guarantee that he is truly cured. All of the patients undergoing the experimental treatment will be monitored for five years.
The difficulty in declaring a patient free of HIV was illustrated by the case of a girl in Mississippi who was put on a strong course of antiretroviral drugs within 30 hours after her birth in 2010 after her mother was found to be HIV positive. The treatment continued until the hospital lost contact with the mother 18 months later. When mother and child reappeared five months after that, the baby had no detectable virus in her blood, raising hopes that the early intervention had cured her––but two years later the virus re-emerged.
The only person believed to have been cured of HIV infection is Timothy Ray Brown, an American treated in Germany. He required a bone marrow transplant with stem cells that would remake his immune system; his doctor found him a donor who was naturally resistant to HIV infection as the result of a genetic mutation. Stem cell transplants, however, are difficult and potentially dangerous for the recipient and are performed only in situations where they can save a life.
Approximately 37 million people are infected with HIV worldwide, and about 35 million people have died from the virus.