Patient 'free' of HIV for only the second time in history after groundbreaking stem cell treatment
A man in the UK has been declared 'free' of HIV in what is only the second ever case in history of the disease being successfully treated.
The patient, whose identity has not been revealed, was diagnosed with the illness in 2003. Then, in 2012, he was discovered to have advanced Hodgkin's lymphoma. His remission from the virus came as a result of the treatment for cancer, as a stem cell transplant from an HIV-resistant donor allowed him to function without HIV drugs.
Astoundingly, the man was actually able to go into remission from both illnesses, as chemotherapy was effective in his case.
Researchers from University College London, Imperial College London, Cambridge and Oxford Universities were all involved in the treatment, and have said that it is still too early to say the individual has been "cured" of the condition. It is certainly true, however, that he has been able to live without HIV for 18 months, and no longer needs to rely on the medication that he was using before.
A decade ago, Timothy Brown, a patient in Berlin, saw similar results after receiving a bone-marrow transplant from a donor with natural immunity to HIV. In this instance, the patient was given two transplants and total body irradiation (radiotherapy) for leukaemia - and the virus has still not returned 10 years later.
"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," said lead study author Professor Ravindra Gupta, from UCL.
However, the strength of the chemotherapy means it isn't exactly ideal as a blanket treatment for the illness.
"The treatment is not appropriate as a standard HIV treatment because of the toxicity of chemotherapy, which in this case was required to treat the lymphoma," added fellow researcher Professor Eduardo Olavarria, who added that the success of stem cell transplants was a positive sign that future treatment for the virus is possible.
Unfortunately, it is impossible to say that the patient in this case has been "cured" because a reservoir of cells carrying HIV can remain in a "resting state" in the human body for an indefinite amount of time. Still, this new development has given a resurgence of hope to researchers looking for a cure.
"If we can understand better why the procedure works in some patients and not others, we will be closer to our ultimate goal of curing HIV," said Professor Graham Cooke from UCL. "At the moment the procedure still carries too much risk to be used in patients who are otherwise well."
Dr. Andrew Freedman from Cardiff University concurred with this, saying: "While this type of treatment is clearly not practical to treat the millions of people around the world living with HIV, reports such as these may help in the ultimate development of a cure for HIV."
It may be a small breakthrough in the relative terms of how many people have not been able to recover from HIV, but, in the context of what this means for the future of HIV treatment, the discovery of the effectiveness of this sort of treatment is immeasurably important.