In the past week researchers have revealed that two different patients have apparently had the AIDS HIV virus eliminated from their bodies.
The virus infects cells of the immune system, which are made in the bone marrow. A man known as the “Berlin patient” was the first person to become HIV-free after cancer treatment, back in 2007. To treat his leukaemia – a cancer of the immune system – he was given a treatment that involved killing nearly all his immune cells with radiotherapy or drugs, and then replacing them with cells from a donor. This donor was naturally resistant to HIV, thanks to a rare but natural mutation in a gene called CCR5.
Since then, no one else had had HIV eliminated from their body in the same way, until a second case was announced on Monday. This person, known as the London patient, was given bone marrow from a donor with the CCR5 mutation as a treatment for Hodgkin’s lymphoma, another immune cell cancer. He was advised to stop taking the antiviral drugs that keep the virus in check about a year afterwards. Eighteen months later, the virus hasn’t returned.
A possible third case was then announced today, at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Seattle.
The more than dozen year gap between the first cure and the two this week is partly because it takes so long to perform the treatment and then confirm the virus is gone. Moreover, this treatment can only be given to a limited number of patients, because of the risks involved.
Nonetheless, if this cure is proven viable, it will be a great triumph for modern science.