A patient appears to have been cured of HIV for only the second time since the epidemic began, reported the New York Times.
The “cure” resulted from a bone-marrow transplants given to treat cancer in the anonymous “London patient.” This was also the case for the first cured patient 12 years ago: Timothy Ray Brown from Palm Springs, California, known at the time as the “Berlin patient.” Researchers say that this new, surprising success confirms that curing HIV is possible, but difficult.
“This will inspire people that a cure is not a dream,” said Dr. Annemarie Wensing, a virologist at the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands. “It’s reachable.”
While most experts have referred to the success as a cure, the scientists behind it describe it as a long-term remission, as it’s only been successful in two cases.
While a bone-marrow transplant put both patients into remission, it’s unlikely it will be a realistic treatment option in the future. However, experts say that rearming the body with immune cells modified to resist HIV may be a practical treatment.
“I feel a sense of responsibility to help the doctors understand how it happened so they can develop the science,” Dr. Wensing told the New York Times. The doctor never thought he would see a cure to both HIV and cancer in his lifetime, so the findings were “surreal” and “overwhelming.”
Dr. Wensing is co-leader of IciStem, a consortium of European scientists studying how to treat HIV with stem cell transplants.
The London patient had Hodgkin’s lymphoma and received a bone-barrow transplant from a donor with a mutation in protein CCR5. HIV uses this protein to enter certain immune cells, however the infection can’t latch on to the mutated version. This mutation was also seen in Brown’s transplants. The London patient stopped taking anti-HIV drugs in September 2017, making him the first patient since Brown to be virus-free for more than a year after getting off the drugs.
IciStem scientists are currently tracking 38 HIV-infected individuals who have received bone-marrow transplants, six from donors without the CCR5 mutation. Number 19 on the list, the “Düsseldorf patient,” has been off of anti-HIV drugs for four months.
While there is no guarantee that the London patient is permanently free from HIV, Dr. Ravindra Gupta, a virologist at University College London, said that similarities to Brown’s recovery offer hope.
“In a way, the only person to compare with directly is the Berlin patient,” he said. “That’s kind of the only standard we have at the moment.”
Brown said he hopes the London patient sees long-term results similar to his.
“If something has happened once in medical science, it can happen again,” he said. “I’ve been waiting for company for a long time.”
HRC Foundation Acting Senior Vice President Jay Brown expressed in a statement that, while a cure is visible, HIV treatment and prevention should not be overlooked.
“We are a long way off from a cure,” Brown said. “While this is a step forward, let’s be clear – treatment and prevention are key. We have the tools today to end HIV once and for all. We must ensure affordable access to HIV-related care and that programs are targeting who need them most.