Fact Check: What to make of the new HIV-cure claim

Fact Check: What to make of the new HIV-cure claim

Acute myeloid leukaemia patient Timothy Brown, who became known as the "Berlin patient", was treated aggressively more than a decade ago in an HIV-curing approach which hasn't been successfully repeated until Professor Ravindra Gupta and colleagues showed the effectiveness of a less aggressive form of treatment. Dr Timothy Henrich, now at the University of California at San Francisco, and colleagues attempted to reproduce Brown's cure in two cancer patients in Boston, but in those cases the donors had normal or "wild-type" stem cells that remained susceptible to HIV, they received less intensive chemotherapy and they stayed on antiretroviral therapy.

While a second patient experiencing HIV viral remission with a slightly less toxic cancer treatment is certainly encouraging progress, an 18-month remission does not equal a cure.

The vast majority of HIV virus strains use the CCR5 molecule, or receptor, as the port of entry into human cells.

However, Gupta and his team emphasised that bone marrow transplant is not a viable option for HIV treatment.

Timothy Ray Brown known as the “Berlin Patient” and the first person to have been cured of AIDS
Timothy Ray Brown known as the “Berlin Patient” and the first person to have been cured of AIDS

However, following a stem cell transplant in 2016 after he had developed Hodgkin's lymphoma, the HIV virus was no longer in the system.

The statement quoted IAS President Anton Pozniak as saying "This is the second reported case of prolonged remission off antiretroviral therapy (ART) post bone marrow transplantation from a CCR5 negative donor". But cure is not around the corner, and infected patients are nowhere near a situation in which they can hope to stop taking their pills soon.

The affected person voluntarily stopped taking HIV medication to see if the virus would come again.

Does anything change for people living with HIV? Otwoma said although there has been a notable decline in new HIV infections, continued effort is still needed to develop an efficacious, accessible and affordable HIV vaccine. Replacing immune cells with those that don't have the CCR5 receptor appears to be key in preventing HIV from rebounding after the treatment.

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Just like the Berlin patient, Gupta says the British man who is being called the "London patient", also received stem cells from a donor with a rare mutated gene called CCR5.

Globally, 36.9 million people were living with HIV in 2017. The patient's immune cells remain unable to express the CCR5 receptor. More recently, researchers reported that a bone marrow transplant recipient in Minnesota had viral remission lasting almost 10 months after an analytic treatment interruption, but he too ultimately experienced viral rebound. Before the second case was reported, Brown's had been the only one of a cure.

The two cases have now been presented at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) in Seattle. These drugs halt HIV from replicating and allow an infected person to regain a functioning immune system.

"Although this breakthrough is complicated and much more work is needed, it gives us great hope for the future that we could potentially end AIDS with science, through a vaccine or a cure", said Michel Sidibé, Executive Director of UNAIDS.

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