The two unnamed patients both had long histories with HIV, and agreed to stop taking their HIV medications so that researchers could ascertain whether it was their medications or the bone marrow transplant that was helping to keep the virus at undetectable levels.
In July, when the initially promising findings were reported, doctors were still unable to detect HIV in patient #1 or patient #2 after both had been off their medications for 7 and 15 weeks, respectively.
However, in August, HIV was detected in patient #1, who then went back on medication. When given the choice to go back on medication after the scientists involved faced ethical issues with continuing the study, patient #2 declined. He returned to the medication after signs of HIV returned after 8 full months free of the virus without medication.
To date, the only patient successfully cured of HIV is Timothy Ray Brown, the so-called “Berlin patient,” who in 2009 received a bone marrow transplant from a patient with a rare HIV-resistant mutation.
Though the findings are disheartening, the scientists involved in the study insist that it will help in the ongoing fight against HIV, and that it was important to come forward with the information about the failure of this particular method.
“We felt it would be scientifically unfair to not let people know how things are going, especially for potential patients,” said lead scientist Dr. Timothy Henrich. Henrich added that the reemergence of the virus in the two patients suggests that latent HIV cells lurk deeper in the body and are more persistent than scientists had realized.
Henrich and his colleagues hope to recruit more patients for further research, and for the time being are focusing their efforts on pinpointing deeper, less routinely tested locations in the body like the liver and brain where HIV reservoirs can hide.
Until the fight against HIV/AIDS is finally won, let this story be yet another reminder to wrap it up, boys.