Human Immunodeficiency Virus, also known as HIV, is the virus that causes acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). AIDS attacks a person’s immune system, interfering with its ability to fight the virus and thereby establishing potentially life-threatening condition. HIV is a sexually transmitted infection and can spread by contact with virus infected fluids of an HIV positive person during sex, blood transfusions, by sharing needles or can be passed to a child from mother during pregnancy or delivery or through breast-feeding.
HIV destroys CD4 T cells, the white blood cells that help the human body fight disease, and can turn into AIDS when the cell count falls below 200. There is no definitive cure for AIDS but currently the people with AIDS are treated with medications that dramatically slow down the progression of the disease. With that being established, I want to put some light on the case of “The Berlin patient”, Timothy Ray Brown, who was the only person known to have had HIV cleared permanently from his body. Before receiving the two stem cell transplants, the doctors had to use radiation and chemotherapy to eradicate acute myeloid leukemia from Timothy’s immune system. The stem cells were donated by a patient who was immune to HIV and that made all the difference in the Berlin’s patient game.
More recently another case of an anonymous “London patient” has come up, who might be the second individual to be cured of HIV infection. This anonymous “London patient” has now been free of the HIV infection for 18 months after undergoing a bone marrow transplant from a donor with a genetic mutation that makes him resistant to the virus. Now this might bring a question to everyone that “Is this a possible cure for HIV?”
According to a scientific team from several UK universities, the potential cure might only be a “long-term remission”. Furthermore, the team added that “it is too early to say with certainty that he has been cured of HIV.” Although the news about the London patient has raised hopes about the potential for a cure, experts have also highlighted some other reasons for caution – one being the radiotherapy and the chemotherapy that is required to clean the immune system before introducing the transplants and the other being the availability of the transplant itself from a donor with the rare protein variant, CCR5, which is found in the minority of people that are naturally resistant to AIDS. The potential treatment has only been carried out on patients with HIV who also need bone marrow transplant because they are suffering from cancer, all these factors result in a very low proportion of successful outcomes.
In the past, there have been cases that were proposed to have been successfully cured of HIV/AIDS. The failed cases include the two “Boston patients” and the “Mississippi baby”, in whom the infection returned after disappearing for long periods. Meanwhile finding a potential cure for the infection, there have been commendable achievements in the field of treating the infection. The conventional ART – antiretroviral therapy drugs that are taken by mouth once a day, have been remarkably successful in suppressing HIV to levels that are undetectable by normal clinical testing and have no effect on the patient’s health.
From the most recent available global statistics, approximately 36.9 million people worldwide were living with HIV/AIDS in 2017 out of which, 1.8 million were children (<15 years old) and an estimated of 1.8 million individuals worldwide became newly infected with HIV in 2017. AIDS-related deaths have been reduced by more than 51% since the peak in 2004 – in 2017, 940,000 people died from AIDS-related illness worldwide compared to 1.9 million in 2004. With all these facts in mind, it is reassuring to know while the cure of AIDS may not have been completely discovered, the treatment has come a long way.