Statistics about how young gays are enjoying condom-free sex and opening themselves up to HIV transmission might (one day) no longer usher in feelings of complete dread: researchers claim they cured 44-year-old Timothy Ray Brown of HIV by using a stem cell treatment.
Back in 2007 a then-unidentified Brown underwent treatment for leukemia that used HIV-resistant stem cells from a bone marrow donor, whose own genes lacked the “docking station” HIV cells require to spread. (This time last year we began hearing about the true possibilities of the treatment.)
From there on out, Brown stopped taking HIV medications — and shocked his doctors by remaining HIV-negative (and maintaining normal T-cell counts) three-and-a-half years after ending his leukemia treatment. Dubbed the “Berlin Patient,” Brown has come forward as the miracle patient whose “HIV remained undetectable by both viral load testing (RNA) and tests for viral DNA within cells, and HIV antibody levels declined to the point that the patient has no antibody reactivity to HIV core antibodies, and only very low levels of antibodies to the HIV envelope proteins,” reports AIDSMap.
Does this mean we’ve solved the HIV epidemic? Hardly. AIDSMeds notes:
On the day of his transplant, he discontinued his antiretrovirals. About 13 months after receiving the transplant, the patient’s leukemia relapsed yet again. A second round of conditioning, followed by another transplant with stem cells with the CCR5 delta-32 deletion, was performed. This led to a complete remission of the cancer. At no point during the initial 20-month follow-up period did the Berlin Patient’s HIV rebound, as highlighted during the initial CROI presentation and in a detailed case report published in a February 2009 issue of The New England Journal of Medicine.
However, uncertainty remained over whether a bona fide cure for HIV infection had been achieved in this patient. First, it was assumed that traces of HIV remained in the patient’s body, despite intensive pre-transplant conditioning. Second, CXCR4-targeting HIV—virus capable of using another receptor on CD4 cells—was found in the patient’s blood before conditioning and transplantation. In turn, it was suggested that archived CXCR4-targeting HIV would proliferate and become detectable, especially with the discontinuation of immune-suppressive drugs potentially keeping existing cellular reservoirs of HIV in check.
But researchers are still losing their shit over Brown’s development. And while I’m sure his HIV status will be monitored for decades to come, the results show the indisputable need for additional stem cell research.