Reporting in the journal Nature ten years (almost to the day) since the first confirmed case of an HIV-infected person (dubbed the “Berlin patient” and later revealed to be an American named Timothy Brown) being rid of the disease, a group of physicians claim to have successfully cured the second-ever person, currently known only as the “London patient”.
In both cases remission was achieved by administering bone marrow transplants from donors with a “delta32” mutation on the CCR5 receptor present in less than one per cent of Europeans (or 16% or Northern Europeanw) that prevents HIV from taking root.
“It is a landmark. After 10 years of not being able to replicate [the first case], people were wondering if this was a fluke,” said lead author Professor Ravindra Gupta from the University of Cambridge. “I think it is important to reaffirm that this is real and it can be done”.
While the “Berlin patient” had to undergo two separate transplant procedures, total body irradiation, and two rounds of chemotherapy, all of which was necessary to treat his leukaemia back in 2009, his counterpart in London had it quite a bit less rough.
According to Gupta, his research suggests two things – radiation therapy, which tends to slow down the recovery of bone marrow, is not required to achieve good results, and chemotherapy, while necessary, can be administered in a single, milder dose.
While there might be other potential bodily targets which could help in preventing or even fighting the infection, CCR5 was selected because it has worked in the past and because there are plenty of people who lack it, seemingly with no adverse effects.
The gene was also targeted in the controversial gene-edited twins born last year in China, whose father is HIV-positive, while the mother is not.
Reacting to the statement given to AFP on Tuesday, the medical community was reserved, but optimistic, many commenting that a cure for HIV might finally be forthcoming, yet more research needs to be done to ensure safety and viability.
After the transplant, the viral load of the “London patient” was confirmed to be undetectable and has remained so ever since.
Next, Gupta plans to test the technique in Africa, where none of the inhabitants have the CCR5 mutation which could safeguard them from becoming infected. “Expanding remission to populations that are affected disproportionately is quite important,” said Gupta.