There is no known “cure” for HIV/AIDS, and as good as the following news is, that has to be reiterated. While some outlets have taken to using the term “cure,” the far more accurate term to use would be “remission.” That’s because what’s happening in three momentous cases — one in London, one in Berlin, and a possible third one in Düsseldorf — is that HIV is being suppressed to the point that it’s not showing up on tests.
In all three cases, the common factor seems to be a bone marrow transplant. The first patient reported to have been “cured” of his HIV was Timothy Brown of Berlin, who was diagnosed simultaneously with leukemia and HIV. Not exactly a roll of the dice any of us want to have come up, but what was remarkable about Brown’s case was that the procedure undertaken to remedy his blood cancer also knocked his HIV out.
Bone marrow contains stem cells that eventually differentiate into the three basic types of blood cells: red blood cells, platelets, and—critical to the immune system—white blood cells. The fact that Brown had both leukemia and HIV isn’t pure happenstance; HIV, which infects white blood cells and eventually causes AIDS, has been linked to the development of blood cancers such as leukemia and lymphoma. (Big Think)
Brown’s case made the headlines in 2007, and for most of the last twelve years he’s been the only recorded instance of such a thing happening. It makes sense when one thinks of how many times someone might have both leukemia and HIV, and up until the London patient, there hadn’t been any more cases where doctors could eplicate the results Brown and his doctors got.
Part of the challenge of recreating Brown’s success was identifying which factor of his treatment cured his HIV. The successful treatment of the London and Düsseldorf patients seem to suggest that the key lies in a genetic mutation called CCR5delta32. (Big Think)
Brown’s case is no longer the only one, however, thanks to news from London. Another recipient of a bone marrow transplant saw their HIV go into remission.
After receiving this rare bone marrow transplant, the London patient stayed on their HIV medication for nearly a year and a half before they were declared — for all intents and purposes — cured of HIV. (Big Think)
And now, we have a third possible reported case, again in Germany.
A possible third case was then announced today, at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Seattle. Biopsies from the gut and lymph nodes of this “Düsseldorf patient” show no infectious HIV after three months off antiviral drugs – only old fragments of viral genes that wouldn’t be able to multiply, says Annemarie Wensing of University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands, who worked on this case. This is just like the Berlin and London patients, she says. (New Scientist)
Being born in 1980, I came of age and saw how humanity handled HIV/AIDS from almost the start. It went from being ignored completely, to an immediate death sentence believed by the most ignorant among us to be a “gay” disease, to being the subject of moral and societal panic, and then, ultimately after public outcry demanding research, a manageable, albeit terrifying disease.
Now, at long last, it seems like there could be something like an HIV vaccine eventually. It’s awe and hope inspiring, to be sure. But it’s also pretty frustrating when you think about how many other breakthroughs could happen if we funded scientific and medical research like we do the military.
However, all that’s confirmed now is that hope. Doctors are strongly cautioning against people thinking we’ve made the miraculous discovery of a true HIV cure yet.
“To be clear, this is not an option yet for people with HIV, even in very rich countries, but it is a major step forward,” says Professor Francois Venter of the Wits Reproductive Health and HIV Institute. “This is incredibly exciting, as it furthers our understanding of the complex immunology of HIV and should get us closer to a cure.” (New Scientist)
Regardless of whether we’re at the stage of an actual cure or not, clearly there are still big strides being made in addressing HIV/AIDS. As much as seeing the disease go from something that meant you were dead in a matter of months to something that can be pretty well contained with drugs was amazing, these new cases build on that hope.
In a weary world, we can all use a little more hope, anyway. Then again, if we do get an HIV vaccine and virtually eradicate it, do we really think at some point a hundred years or more down the line there won’t be people insisting the HIV vaccine causes autism? Sorry, there I go ruining our hopeful moment with some pragmatic realism again.
Writer/comedian James Schlarmann is the founder of The Political Garbage Chute and his work has been featured on The Huffington Post. You can follow James on Facebook and Instagram, but not Twitter because he has a potty mouth.