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Woman’s Own Immune System May Have Cured Her HIV

HIV cured argentina
Anti-retroviral medication used for the treatment of HIV. A woman in Argentina has seemingly been cured of HIV despite not having taken medication. Credit: NIAID/Wikimedia Commons/CC BY 2.0

A woman from Argentina who was diagnosed with HIV has apparently been cured of the virus despite not taking drugs or treatment.

In what doctors believe is an extremely rare case, the woman’s immune system seems to have cleared her body of the virus completely. It is only the second such case to have been documented.

The results of the study and circumstances of the case were published in an article in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine on Monday.

Doctors have conducted every possible test to confirm that there are no traces of the virus in any of the cells of the 30-year-old woman, who has been dubbed the “Esperanza Patient.” Fittingly, “Esperanza” means “hope” in Spanish.

“Esperanza patient:” woman’s own body may have cured her HIV

They have now tested more than a billion of her cells, and there was no remnant of the virus present in any of them. There has been no detectable presence of the virus in her cells for the past eight years after she was diagnosed with the virus in 2013.

Speaking to BBC News, Professor John Frater from the University of Oxford suggested that some kind of “abortive infection” may have driven the HIV from her body.

“The key question is whether this patient has actually cured themselves or, alternatively, had some form of abortive infection, which tried to get going but the embers were snuffed out early…

“Her immune system clearly shows a memory of having been infected, so there seems to be no question that she was. Regardless, there may be similar patients out there, offering much to learn in the search for a HIV cure,” he stated.

Experts hope that her case may be studied in attempting to discover ways to treat or cure the virus, which has killed millions, in the future.

The case also helps to confirm the long-held belief that some people may have genes that contribute to a natural resistance to the virus.

Advancements in treatment of virus

The vast majority of the nearly 40 million people living with HIV today need to take  antiretroviral therapy for the rest of their lives to keep the virus in check. This medicine keep the virus from replicating itself and spreading in the body.

With treatment, people with HIV can lead long, healthy lives, as advancements in therapies and treatments have made what was once a deadly virus into a manageable condition.

In fact, patients with HIV who take their daily medication can achieve such a low viral load  that it is impossible for them to transmit it to someone else.

Yet there is a minuscule number of people who do not need medicine to beat the virus. Those very few patients with HIV who are able to control the infection without medication are called “elite controllers.”

The Argentinian woman’s case is unique, however, as she did not just control the virus — like elite controllers do — but seems to have eliminated it all together.

Steven Deeks, an HIV researcher who is not linked to the particular case, stated to the Washington Post that “What happened is unique. It’s not that she’s controlling the virus, which we do see, but that there’s no virus there, which is quite different.”

There have also been rare instances of patients being “cured” of the virus after receiving treatment for other conditions.

“London Patient” cured of HIV after cancer treatment

Adam Castillejo, known as the “London Patient,” was famously able to stop taking his daily HIV medication after receiving stem-cell treatment for cancer.

It seems that the HIV cells were destroyed when he had the treatment. Luckily for him, his stem-cell donor was one of the estimated 1% of people who are genetically resistant to HIV.

Doctors are still unsure how long this effect will last, however. And such stem cell treatments are costly and have many side effects, and may not work with everyone, ruling them out as a cure for the virus.

Dr Xu Yu from the Ragon Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT and Harvard stated that the “Esperanza Patient’s” case my help scientists develop a cure that works like the genes found in elite controllers.

“There may be an actionable path to a sterilizing cure for people who are not able to do this on their own. We are now looking toward the possibility of inducing this kind of immunity in persons on ART, through vaccination, with the goal of educating their immune systems to be able to control the virus without ART,” Dr. Yu stated.

Other scientists have stressed that while the case may open up avenues for treatment and cures, the bulk of research and interest in fighting HIV should be focused on widening access to life-saving medications for those with the virus worldwide.

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