For the past 40 years, researchers have desperately been trying to find a cure for HIV. Although antiretroviral treatments now make living with the virus manageable, many still cannot afford such drugs, and researchers have yet to find a way to eliminate the virus from the body entirely — until now, according to a new case report in the journal Nature.
According to the report, an HIV patient in London has successfully received stem cell transplants of CCR5-delta 32, a rare genetic mutation that appears to make a small number of people resistant to HIV by preventing the virus from attacking the immune system. The patient was diagnosed with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2012, which led his doctors to suggest gene therapy to create healthy blood cells. Since receiving the treatment, he has stopped taking antiretroviral medications and his body has reportedly been free of the virus for the past 18 months.
The patient, who was not named, is the second person to have successfully received such treatment. The first was Timothy Brown, a.k.a. the “Berlin Patient,” who made headlines in 2008 when he received a similar bone marrow transplant. He has been living HIV-free ever since.
“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, a professor at the University College London’s Division of Infection and Immunity and the lead author of the study, told CNN.
Although numerous headlines have suggested that the stem cell transplant treatment is a “cure” for HIV/AIDS, that is not entirely accurate. The patient has only reportedly been HIV-free for 18 months, which Gupta said is not long enough to say for sure whether he’s been cured. Further, bone-marrow gene therapy comes with its own set of complications, making it a risky treatment for most people living with HIV/AIDS. (In fact, Brown, who had to receive two bone marrow transplants, almost became paralyzed after the second one.)
Yet researchers are hopeful that this treatment could set a precedent for the estimated 37 million people living with HIV worldwide, especially considering that antiretroviral treatment is expensive and not available to everyone with HIV.
Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease at the National Institute of Health, warns that this shouldn’t be seen as an easy, widespread cure. “To be honest, I don’t think it’s really very applicable,” he says, noting that bone marrow transplants have a five- to 10-percent risk of mortality. “From a practical scaleable standpoint, we don’t want people to believe this is an option for the run-of-the-mill HIV-infected individual who is running on a single pill a day. It is not scaleable, and it is risky.”
“We know we can very very effectively suppress the virus and get people to lead normal lives,” he says. “A single pill a day for me is an infinitely better thing than a bone marrow transplant.”
Update: This story has been updated to include comment from Anthony Fauci of the NIH.