British doctors believe they have replicated a specific scenario that effectively cured a man of HIV ten years ago. In an article published Tuesday in the scientific journal Nature, doctors at the University of Cambridge report that a patient appears to be totally free of the virus after receiving a stem cell transplant as part of cancer treatment.
“The London Patient,” as he is known, had a form of blood cancer that was not responding to chemotherapy and underwent a bone marrow transplant which required a replenishment of white blood cells via stem cells. Rather than replace the patient’s stem cells with just any match, physicians used ones with a special HIV-resistant mutation.
After the transplant, doctors found no trace of HIV in the patient’s blood and after 16 months with no resurgence, they stopped the use of antiretroviral drugs — the standard treatment for HIV which limits the virus’s replication in the blood. Now, 18 months after stopping medication, the patient’s blood is still testing negative for HIV.
“By achieving remission in a second patient using a similar approach, we have shown that the Berlin Patient was not an anomaly and that it really was the treatment approaches that eliminated HIV in these two people,” Ravindra Gupta, head author of the study, told CNN.
“Although it is not a viable large-scale strategy for a cure… these new findings reaffirm our belief that there exists a proof of concept that HIV is curable,” President of the International Aids Society, Anton Pozniak told The Guardian. “The hope is that this will eventually lead to a safe, cost-effective and easy strategy to achieve these results using gene technology or antibody techniques.”
Who is the Berlin Patient?
In 2008, German doctors at Charité Medical University in Berlin published a paper on a scenario almost identical to that of the London Patient — a man who had a persistent form of blood cancer was given a bone marrow transplant paired with HIV-resistant stem cells. The decision to use HIV-resistant cells at the time was based on a paper published a decade before about people who naturally produce these cells — about one percent of Europeans.
The Berlin Patient later came forward as American Timothy Ray Brown and though doctors have made various attempts to replicate his treatment in the intervening decade, none have succeeded until now. Brown seemed for some time to have been a fluke since HIV/AIDS has a history of seeming to disappear for a few months after aggressive treatment, but return shortly after.
Brown, now 52, reportedly lives in Palm Springs, California and is still clear of HIV to this day.
This research is still very new and it could be decades before it leads to something that can actually be tested on a larger scale, but for now, it’s encouraging news to the medical community.
#HIV continues to be a major global public health issue:
🔺HIV has claimed more than 35 MILLION lives so far
🔺There are around 37 MILLION people living with HIV around the world
🔺Almost 2 MILLION people become newly infected every year pic.twitter.com/v5lcUS4k2D
— World Health Organization (WHO) (@WHO) March 5, 2019