There are now two patients who have been cured of HIV infection, which has led researchers to start hunting for a more widely available cure using gene therapy.
The two men who have been cured of their HIV infections “benefited from a combination of medical and genetic chance”, an article for CBS News explained.
It revealed that Adam Castillejo, known as the London Patient, received a bone marrow transplant to treat Hodgkin’s lymphoma, an otherwise untreatable blood cancer. Due to a genetic mutation in his donor’s bone marrow, Mr Castillejo is HIV free two and a half years on.
Timothy Ray Brown, known as the Berlin Patient and the first man to be cured of HIV, also had a bone marrow transplant to treat leukemia. Just as with Mr Castillejo, his donor also carried the same genetic mutation.
The mutation applies to a protein found on the surface of white blood cells called CCR5.
Rowena Johnston, vice president and director of research at amfAR, the Foundation for Aids Research, explained to the news provider why this mutation has cured HIV in these two patients.
“HIV uses this protein to gain entry into the cells it infects,” she said. “If you’re a person with this genetic mutation, which means you don’t have that protein, it’s almost impossible for HIV to infect any of your cells.”
This means that both men essentially received a new immune system when they had their bone marrow transplants.
There are many obstacles to this approach being a widespread cure, not least of all that any potential donor will not only need to be a match but to carry this specific genetic mutation. Bone marrow transplants are also gruelling and high-risk medical treatments.
But, while this isn’t necessarily the best option for an HIV cure, it does give researchers and those with HIV hope.
Ms Johnston said that seeing these two patients cured, along with a potential third patient in Germany, indicates there could be a genetic cure for the condition.
“It’s a long way away. I’m not saying that’s happening tomorrow. But it gives you the sense that it might be worth putting in the effort to see if we can develop the technologies to make that happen,” Ms Johnston asserted.
Speaking to CNN Health, Sharon Lewin, director of the Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity at the University of Melbourne, said that while Mr Castillejo’s treatment was an “exciting advance” it’s important to view it in context.
“We need to constantly reiterate the importance of prevention, early testing and treatment adherence as the pillars of the current global response to HIV/AIDS. And maintain the search for an HIV cure,” Ms Lewin stated.
Mr Castillejo revealed his identity in an interview with the New York Times, the news provider noted. He told the newspaper that he wanted to be “an ambassador of hope” after experiencing years of difficult treatments.
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