A lot has been said in recent months about possible “cures” for HIV but, in every instance, there are caveats which are not as well publicized. The tendency which has been prevalent to point to these alleged remedies and call them cures has been seen by many activists and health professionals as irresponsible, and possibly even misleading. In truth, there has yet to be any actual cure for HIV that fits the strict definition of the word.
There have been treatments which have shown a great deal of promise, and which have had a measure of success. There has been one instance of an individual becoming cured as a result of a combination of treatments for his Leukemia, but the process has not been able to be duplicated or even completely isolated. There are means of suppression, even to the point of the virus being virtually undetectable in patients on some treatments. There is a method of effective prophylaxis against the virus for high-risk patients. There is a measure of hope in all of these things far beyond what people living with the disease have ever had. In light of the caveats contained in each of the claims being made, however, it is not technically accurate to say that there is a HIV cure.
For years there has been increased excitement over alleged cures which have turned out repeatedly to have been essentially very effective suppression techniques. Giving antiretroviral drugs to newborn babies born with HIV caused doctors to believe them actually cured, only to find that without the drugs the virus once again became detectable. The same was the case with men thought to have been cured by bone marrow transplants. Only one man, Timothy Ray Brown, has actually been confirmed as virus-free, but this was as a result of a combination of Leukemia treatments which included bone marrow transplants from a donor with HIV resistance. Researchers have not been able to duplicate the process in anyone.
Some progress has been made with respect to curing patients with both cancer and HIV. In Barcelona, doctors have had success with treating cancer patients with the virus using blood from the umbilical cords of patients with a genetic resistance for blood transplants. This treatment was a modification of an experiment created to attempt duplication of the Brown result. While it was apparently successful in removing any detectable virus, the patient died of the cancer before a complete evaluation of the result could be made.
There is a study about to be published in the Clinical Microbiology and Infection which evaluates how genetic resistance in two patients with HIV left them virus free after years of being infected. There is a hypothesis which poses the possibility of resistance being a factor of an increase in an enzyme called APOBEC, but the study has been questioned for some of the methods used. Though this possible insight into this possible enzymatic resistance is something that may provide a means of getting to a cure one day, it is not a cure.
Caveats aside, the search for a cure for HIV is making strides which it would be difficult to argue should not be spoken and written about. With this disease, experts are unanimous that the more information that gets out into the public eye, the better it is for anyone who has been infected. This fight cannot be made in darkness and secrecy. An honest evaluation in the statements made about research and potential HIV cures, however, is what many would say the only way to make sure that the hope that this reporting gives is not false.
By Jim Malone