HIV, or Human Immunodeficiency Virus, has been a serious worldwide epidemic for human health. After decades of research and medical trials, doctors have now discovered a successful method of treatment; One that may even be deemed as the HIV cure.
This discovery comes to us nearly 12 years after the first successful treatment of an HIV positive male. The patient, Timothy Ray Brown, was not only HIV positive, but was also diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia. To begin tackling his treatment, Brown had to undergo numerous rounds of chemotherapy and radiation to wipe out his immune system. From there, doctors rebuilt his immune system with donor cells, all of which were from an HIV-immune person. The results showed his cancer in remission, and his body cured of HIV.
Years of studying and attempted duplication of this treatment were coming up empty, until now. Although this recent finding marks only the third patient to receive successful treatment, doctors are considering the findings to check all of the boxes of a potential cure.
A Medical Breakthrough
HIV has been on the forefront of medical concerns for years now. Its complex nature and intense damage to the patient's immune system only makes this illness that much more complicated, resulting in a prolonged period of time finding a cure. Complications of a suppressed immune system also results in the death of the patient's lymph nodes, which are essentially the body's best mechanisms of defense against foreign organisms.
HIV's effects on the immune system leads to increased complications, including AIDS
Looking at the recent HIV cure reports, a pattern becomes apparent. Out of all of the attempted cures and treatments, the only patients to achieve HIV negative test results post treatment are those who were simultaneously battling cancer. Strangely enough, these patients' medical treatments were targeted to tackle the cancer first and foremost, and the HIV destruction was actually just a miraculous bi-product.
The cancer treatment that these patients received is also highly invasive, including bone marrow and stem cell transplants. Both of these patients are also recipients of very specific donor materials. In order to be a match, the donor bone marrow and cells had to come from a person who carried a key genetic mutation, called delta 32. This mutation is proven to be immune to HIV, and when placed into the patients' bodies, made the patients immune as well. Effectively, the transplants were able to recode the patients' bodies to defeat HIV on their own.
What this Means for the Future of HIV
The world is definitely intrigued by this new proclamation of a cure, especially given the timeline and how many lives HIV has claimed. But with this information comes a myriad of questions: When will the cure be available? How accessible is it? Is it a guaranteed solution?
According to doctors, the discovery is undoubtedly a huge advancement in the field of medicine. It is not, however, an immediate solution to the global HIV epidemic. Although the trials are promising, we are still many years away from making this treatment accessible to patients, with uncertainty that we may even reach that point given its complex nature.
But, now that the treatment is narrowed down to working with the patient's genetic makeup, improving upon this new cure is just a matter of time. We already know that they key is the delta 32 gene, which is HIV resistant and allows for the host to become that as well. The problem then is whether or not we can find enough samples of this gene, seeing as it is mostly present in people of Northern European decent. Right now, IciStem, an international collaborative group searching for the HIV cure, has a database of only about 22,000 delta 32 donors.
The genetic mutation called delta 32 is proving to be a cure for HIV
This shortage of donors led doctors to expand their resources and try to up their supply of HIV-immune genes in clinical settings. One method is to try and incorporate gene therapy techniques, much like the ones used for patients with autoimmune diseases such as sickle-cell. Because delta 32 is actually a genetic mutation, doctors found that HIV needs the protein called CCR5 in order to take hold in the body. With the delta 32 mutation, however, this protein isn't present, so HIV cannot survive.
Essentially, doctors are trying to recreate this genetic mutation as a means of an HIV cure. Aside from the direct gene therapy techniques, researchers have also taken samples from HIV-positive patients and attempted to edit the CCR5 out, then place the sample back into the patient. So far, there has been limited success with this method; It does remove the protein effectively, but the results are unfortunately not enough to eliminate the presence of HIV in the patients.
Dr. Mike McCune, a senior advisor of global health at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, is thinking big when it comes to this new discovery. In a recent interview with the New York Times, he hinted at the possibility of an injectable HIV cure in the future that would seek out all of the CCR5 proteins and delete them, making for a minimally-invasive cure. It's a dream at the moment, but science is moving fast; It could become a reality sooner than we think.
The HIV epidemic has wreaked havoc on the population for decades now. Complications and the progression towards AIDS has claimed millions of lives, and the future was still looking bleak; Until now. The dedication to finding a cure is paying off, and the outlook for those with HIV is looking much brighter. Just last year, it was reported that 36.9 million people worldwide are living with HIV/AIDS. But, with a narrowing approach to treatment, the HIV cure is looking promising, and the epidemic is hopefully coming to a halt.