For the second time in history, a person carrying the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) has been cured.
Almost 12 years after the first person became HIV-free, doctors have managed to replicate that success, something medical professionals all over the world tried long and hard to do.
An article details how the second patient is in “long-term remission”, similar to the first one.
How does this ‘cure’ work?
The New York Times says the researchers prefer publicly calling the treatment a “long-term remission” because the idea of this being a fool-proof cure for HIV is inaccurate.
It is difficult to officially designate a treatment as a “cure” if there are only two known instances of it, they add.
Nonetheless, both treatments have a commonality: bone-marrow transplants. The transplants initially intended to treat cancer in the two patients.
California resident Timothy Ray Brown, initially known only as the “Berlin patient”, became the first to be HIV-free. He had two stem cell transplants that cleared his body of HIV, reports Vox.
Vox reports that both patients’ immune systems were first “wiped out” via chemotherapy and then replaced with stem cell transplants and non-malignant donor cells.
The bone marrow transplants infused their body with much-needed immunity, which then resisted the spread of HIV.
Such a transplant is not a realistic mass technique yet because it is very risky, has serious complications, and is difficult to replicate.
The NYT says that despite efforts to duplicate Brown’s treatment, patients tested positive around nine months after they stopped taking anti-HIV drugs.
However, the second person, who prefers to remain anonymous and is being called the “London patient”, has been off anti-HIV drugs for over 16 months now and has tested negative for the virus.
Hope for future treatments?
Currently, doctors prescribe anti-HIV drugs, such as non-nucleoside reverse transcriptase inhibitors or entry inhibitors, that not only prevent HIV cells from duplication but also prevent them from entering white blood cells.
However, Gero Hütter, Brown’s doctor, said, “By repeating the procedure in another patient, there is more evidence that the ‘Berlin patient’ is not an exception.”
The London patient’s treatment was also much less harsh than Brown’s, giving medical professionals and patients renewed hope.
The London patient told the NYT, “I feel a sense of responsibility to help doctors understand how it happened so they can develop the science.”
Why India should care
In 2016, India had 80,000 cases of new HIV infections and 62,000 Aids-related deaths.
UNAIDS reports that of the 21 lakh Indians living with HIV, 2.2% are sex workers, 4.3% are gay men, and 7.2% are transgender people.
However, the organisation also said that since 2010, the prevalence of HIV infections and Aids-related deaths has decreased significantly.
The authors of the article will publish their findings in Nature, an international journal on science and technology.
They will also present a report at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Seattle and include information on the “Dusseldorf patient” who has been in remission for four months.
While ordinary Indians having access to such a ‘cure’ is not a realistic scenario, the existence of a successful treatment itself is a huge stride as it opens up the possibility of duplication into a mass therapy sometime in the future.
Rhea Arora is a staff writer at Qrius