For the second time ever — a patient shows signs of being cured of infection with H.I.V. — the virus that causes AIDS.
The announcement comes almost 12 years after the very first patient known to be cured.
According to researchers, this confirms that a cure for H.I.V. infection is possible.
The investigators are due to publish their report in the journal Nature as well as present some of the details at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Seattle.
Scientists are publicly describing the case as a long-term remission — while in interviews, most experts coin it as a cure.
Both circumstances resulted from bone-marrow transplants given to infected patients.
Such transplants were designed to treat cancer in the patients, not H.I.V. — with bone-marrow transplantation being an unrealistic treatment option in the future.
Very powerful drugs are now available to control the H.I.V. infection while the transplants pose higher risks with intense side effects that can last for years.
Experts say rearming the body with immune cells designed to resist H.I.V. may actually succeed as treatment.
“This will inspire people that cure is not a dream,” said a virologist at the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands, Dr. Annemarie Wensing. “It’s reachable.”
Dr. Wensing co-leads IciStem — a collective of European scientist who study stem cell transplants to treat H.I.V. infection, supported by AMFAR or the American AIDS research organization.
The patient has decided to remain anonymous — with scientists only referring to him as the “London patient.”
“I feel a sense of responsibility to help the doctors understand how it happened so they can develop the science,” he shared in an email to The New York Times.
Discovering that he could be cured of H.I.V. infections well as cancer was both “surreal,” and “overwhelming,” he said.
“I never thought that there would be a cure during my lifetime.” he continued.
In 2007 at the very same conference, a German doctor described the first cure in the “Berlin patient,” who was later identified as Timothy Ray Brown, 52, who now resides in Palm Springs, California.
Once it was obvious Mr. Brown was in fact cured, scientists were determined to duplicate his results with others who were infected with H.I.V. but it was not that simple.
As the cases rolled on — the virus continued to come back, often around the nine month mark after the patients stopped taking antiretroviral drugs or the patients died of cancer.
Scientists wondered if Mr. Brown’s cure would ever be repeated in the future or if it was just a one-time-miracle.
Mr. Brown battled leukemia — and after chemotherapy did not stop its progress — he needed not one but two bone-marrow transplants.
The transplants derived from a donor with a mutation in a protein called CCR5 — which rests on the top of certain immune cells.
H.I.V. then uses the protein to enter said cells but is not able to latch on to the mutated version.
Mr. Brown was administered very intense immunosuppressive drugs that are no longer used today.
He then battled for months severe complications following the transplant.
He then was placed in an induced coma and almost died.
“He was really beaten up by the whole procedure,” said AIDS expert, Dr. Steven Deeks, at the University of California, San Francisco.
Dr. Steven Deeks has additionally treated Mr. Brown.
“And so 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.”
But the London patient has proven that a near-death experience is not a precursor for the procedure to be successful.
He had Hodgkin’s lymphoma and received a bone-marrow transplant from a donor with the CCR5 mutation back in May of 2016.
He also received immunosuppressive drugs but the treatment was much less severe.
In September of 2017, he stopped taking anti-H.I.V. drugs, which would make him the first patient since Mr. Brown known to stay virus-free for over a year after stopping.
“I think this does change the game a little bit,” said a virologist at University College London, Dr. Ravindra Gupta, who presented the discovery at the Seattle meeting. “Everybody believed after the Berlin patient that you needed to nearly die basically to cure H.I.V., but now maybe you don’t.”
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