Doctors say a patient in California appears to have been cured of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). It’s the fourth time anyone in the world has seemingly been relieved of the virus.
The patient, a 66-year-old man who otherwise wished to remain unidentified, has been living with HIV since the 1980’s. Prior to receiving the treatment that seems to have cured him, the patient was taking antiretroviral drugs, which have been used for the last few decades to prevent the virus from replicating in the body. While such drugs have the ability to extend an HIV-positive patient’s life, they also come with adverse side effects from gastrointestinal issues to bone loss. These reactions are difficult to manage long-term.
Banishing the virus for good, however, can free someone from having to endure miserable side effects over a long period of time. It’s just a matter of making sure the virus stays gone. This patient received a bone marrow transplant at City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, California. Thanks to a protein mutation within the donor’s white blood cells, the donor was naturally resistant to HIV. The mutation, known as CCR5-Δ32 (pronounced “CCR5-delta 32”), proved useful to the patient in the days following his transplant. Over time, HIV became undetectable in the patient’s body. That was 17 months ago. The patient has been in remission ever since.
Despite what looks like a miracle, the patient’s success story comes with more than one catch. The patient only received the blood marrow transplant following a blood cancer leukaemia diagnosis; his donor just happened to carry the CCR5-Δ32 variant. Blood marrow transplants are also painful and complex procedures, making them impractical for frequent use with HIV-positive patients.
Doctors warn the CCR5-Δ32 variant is also relatively uncommon, especially among those who are not of European descent. Additionally, some worry the variant itself could shorten people’s lifespans. Further research is required to ensure that it’s safe to “give” the variant to others.
Of course, there’s a chance CCR5-Δ32 ends up being safe to use for wider HIV treatment (or at least worth its disadvantages, given those associated with HIV). In that case, doctors will hopefully be well prepared as scientists seek out ways to use gene therapy in conjunction with CCR5-Δ32.