A cure for HIV may have been found, according to scientists in the US who say they have stumbled upon growing evidence that the disease can be cured. The cure may lie in bone marrow transplants.
Their findings were presented at the International Aids Society Conference last month in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.
Doctors say two HIV positive men had no measurable levels of HIV virus in their blood after receiving bone marrow transplants for treatment for cancer. The two men had carried the disease for 30 years.
According to scientists at the Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, Massachusetts, one of the men has been off HIV drugs for fifteen weeks and the other has gone without these drugs for seven. So far there is no sign of their disease returning. Anti-retroviral drugs keep the virus in check within the bloodstream. If a person stops taking the drugs, the virus returns.
Doctors involved in the study said they were cautiously optimistic that the virus will not return although they cautioned that the disease may come back any time. They said it is hard to get rid of an HIV infection because HIV virus buries itself inside human DNA, forming untouchable “reservoirs” in body. According to scientists, bone marrow is the main pool for HIV.
The two “HIV cured” men had received bone marrow transplants after developing lymphoma, a cancer which required these treatments.
If this is a cure for the disease, doctors say it is a very expensive and problematic one. Bone marrow transplants are very costly and can result in “graft-v-host” disease. Also, mortality rates in the first few years stand at 15-20%.
“Graft-v-host” occurs when the new immune cells produced by the graft attack the rest of the body as foreign. Immunosuppressant drugs can help with this by suppressing the immune system. The two patients in this study are on these drugs to suppress their immune system.
Dr. Timothy Henrich, one of the doctors involved in the study told reporters the results were exciting. However, he added that the virus could still be hiding inside brain tissue or the gastrointestinal track.
“If [the] virus does return, it would suggest that these other sites are an important reservoir of infectious virus and new approaches to measuring the reservoir at relevant sites will be needed to guide the development of HIV curative strategies,” he said.
“What we can say is if the virus does stay away for a year or even two years after we stopped the treatment, that the chances of the virus rebounding are going to be extremely low.
Dr. Michael Brady, the medical director of the Terrence Higgins Trust, said it was too early to know whether HIV has been eradicated from these men’s bodies or whether it might make a comeback.
According to scientists, the real value of this research for the majority of people with HIV will come from a deeper understanding of the virus and HIV reservoirs.
The first person thought to be cured of HIV is Timothy Ray Brown. He is also known as the “”Berlin patient.” He was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia in 2006. Reports say he received a bone marrow transplant from a rare donor who was resistant to HIV. In the US study the two men received bone marrow from normal donors.
A newborn baby in Mississippi was also cured of HIV because she was treated with anti-retroviral drugs at birth. It is believed that the virus cleared from her body before establishing reservoirs.
Kevin Frost, head of the Foundation for AIDS Research said: “These findings clearly provide important new information that might well alter the current thinking about HIV and gene therapy.
Expressing hope that HIV cure is found, he added, “While stem-cell transplantation is not a viable option for people with HIV on a broad scale because of its costs and complexity, these new cases could lead us to new approaches to treating, and ultimately even eradicating HIV.”
By Perviz Walji