Image: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention
In 2008, Timothy Ray Brown – known as the Berlin Patient – became the first man in history to be entirely cured of HIV. To save his life during a horrific battle with Leukaemia, Brown was given a bone marrow transplant – essentially remaking his immune system. The marrow came from a donor who had an extraordinary genetic mutation that rendered him resistant to the virus. Today, as a result of this fortuitous marrow donation, Timothy Ray Brown lives HIV free.
However, for the 37 million people living with HIV worldwide this is a highly unlikely and risky option. The procedure is expensive, carries no guarantee of a cure and remains unavailable to many in the developing world. Moreover, the number of people who share that donor’s exceptional HIV resistant mutation make up less than one per cent of the world’s population, further complicating an already difficult search for a marrow match. This week, however, another man is believed to have been the second person in history to be cured of HIV.
HIV or Human Immunodeficiency Virus destroys T-cells. These cells help our immune system to customize its attack to different invaders, whether they be viruses, bacteria or otherwise. As these T-cells are struck down by HIV, the immune system is critically weakened. Standard treatment using anti-retroviral drugs will stop the virus from reproducing, but is unable to detect and extinguish the virus. The virus can hide dormant in cells and, therefore, lives permanently in the body of the infected.
Currently, even the most sophisticated technologies cannot detect HIV in its dormant form in the immune system, as it conceals itself. This visionary new treatment combines the standard antiretroviral medication with a second drug that forcibly reactivates dormant HIV, chasing it out of hiding. This is followed up with a vaccine that induces the immune system to seek and destroy the virus itself. Blood tests indicate that the virus vanished from the blood of a 44-year-old social worker here in the UK.
The man has said, “I took part in the trial to help others as well as myself. It would be a massive achievement if, after all these years, something is found to cure people of this disease. The fact that I was a part of that would be incredible.” Though researchers say the man has made, “remarkable progress” they are cautious to say more. Researchers have been close to a cure before, only to find months or a year later the virus has re-emerged. Scientists are moving forward with tempered optimism during clinical trials, funded by the NHS. Regardless of whether this man has been cured or not, this is a definite step forward in the fight against HIV.