Second patient reportedly cured of HIV in big milestone for AIDS treatment

The second patient is proof that a near-death experience isn't necessarily part of a cure for HIV.


For the second time in the history of HIV infection, a patient seems to have been cured completely of the infection which eventually causes AIDS.

Twelves years ago, to the day, news about the first patient cured of HIV was announced — something researchers had been struggling to do for a very long time. After multiple trials, failures and repeat experiments, researchers have finally had success with the second case of medically-treated remission from HIV infection.

The researcher team is due to publish their findings in Nature soon, and give a brief presentation about their work at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Seattle.

Second patient reportedly cured of HIV in big milestone for AIDS treatment

The HIV virus, in green, attaching to a white blood cell, in orange, as seen under a coloured transmission electron microscope. Image credit: NIBSC

Experts and researchers talking about this second case, known as the "London Patient", are publicly stating that the patient is "in long-term remission", not "cured". The caveat to the terms is that there have only ever been two cases of the phenomenon throughout medical history, so they're simply unsure what the right terminology is as yet.

In both instances, the HIV-infected patient was treated using bone-marrow transplants that were actually designed to treat cancer patients and not HIV. This makes it a tricky and unfeasible option as a treatment for other HIV-positive patients in the near future.

Bone-marrow transplants could have harsh side-effects that last years, not to mention a much higher risk of developing cancer. Currently, there are powerful and effective drugs available to control HIV infection with few or no side-effects.

"This will inspire people that cure is not a dream," Dr Annemarie Wensing, a virologist at the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands, told the New York Times. "It’s reachable."

Representational image. Reuters

Representational image. Reuters

After news of the first "Berlin patient" broke at the same Seattle Conference in 2007, scientists have been trying hard to replicate the results in other HIV-infected patients. In every case until now, either the virus roared back to life — usually around nine months after getting off their medication, or the patients died of cancer.

The Berlin patient was identified many years later as Timothy Ray Brown, a 52-year-old man now a California resident. In Brown's case, he had leukaemia and was in need of bone-marrow transplants since his chemotherapy was failing him. Luckily for him, his donor had a mutation in a gene called CCR5, which is linked with some people having a natural resistance to HIV. CCR5 is also the gene that Chinese researcher He Jiankui tweaked in embryos to give them a genetically-engineered resistance to HIV infection throughout their lifetimes.

With immunosuppressive drugs and repeated bone marrow transplants, the treatment ultimately worked. But Brown almost died by the end of the treatment.

Timothy Brown, the first man to have once had HIV and then not, thanks to medicine. Image courtesy: Center for Health Journalism

Timothy Brown, the first man to have once had HIV and then not, thanks to medicine. Image courtesy: Center for Health Journalism

"We’ve always wondered whether all that conditioning... a massive amount of destruction to his immune system... explained why Timothy was cured but no one else."

Now, the London patient is proof that a near-death experience isn't necessarily part of the process. His transplant beat cancer without any threatening side-effects, and the transplanted immune cells that were made resistant to HIV appeared to have replaced all the HIV-vulnerable cells in his blood.

While there isn't a hundred percent guarantee, the London patient has been off his medication for a year without any sign of the virus making a comeback. She/he/ze seems to have followed the same recovery path as Mr Brown all those years ago after their treatments.

Mr Brown hopes that the London patient’s cure proves as durable as his own, NYT reported. "If something has happened once in medical science, it can happen again," he said. "I’ve been waiting for company for a long time."

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