Are we celebrating too soon about HIV/AIDS cure?


Over the past two years, the phrase “HIV cure” has been used repeatedly in media headlines across the globe.

In March 2013, doctors from Mississippi reported that the virus had vanished from a toddler who was infected at birth. Four months later, researchers in Boston reported a similar case in two previously HIV-positive men.

All three were no longer required to take medication. The media highlighted these breakthroughs, and there was anxious optimism among HIV experts. And millions of dollars of grant funds were earmarked to bring this work to more patients.

But in December 2013, the optimism evaporated, after HIV had re-emerged in both the Boston men.

Then, just this summer, researchers announced the same grim results for the child from Mississippi. These incidences raised the most difficult question, whether there will ever be a cure for HIV/AIDS? According to the World Health Organization (WHO), there were approximately 35 million people worldwide living with HIV in 2013. Of these, 3.2 million were children. Although there are many exciting examples of the enormous progress which is being made in relentless effort to find a lasting solution to HIV, none of these attempts have been recognised by the WHO yet.

And that’s speaks volume that researchers and medical doctors need to be careful when using the word ‘HIV cure’.

To date, there is only one person who is said have been cured of HIV. Timothy Ray Brown, who is referred to as ‘The Berlin Patient’ was diagnosed with leukaemia and underwent extensive treatment in Germany in 2007 with a bone marrow transplant.

After his treatment, Brown was not only found to be cancer free, but his HIV has also remained undetectable ever since, even though he is not taking any anti-retroviral medication.

But based on available theories it sounds like this just happened accidentally since no one really knows how this happened. Some schools of thought argue that there is a possibility that the radiation he received could have destroyed most of the HIV-containing cells in his body at the beginning of the treatment. 

While some intriguing idea is that the Berlin patient received a bone marrow transplant from a donor with a rare genetic mutation called Delta 32. This mutation may prevent HIV from entering the cells. Additionally, a phenomenon known as ‘graft versus host disease’ where the healthy transplanted cells attack the host cells, might have eliminated HIV reservoir in the Berlin patient.

No one really knows how HIV disappeared from this man, but evidence shows that he was HIV free and I think here the word ‘cure’ can apply.

Although scientists have been proposing multiple, cutting-edge techniques to engineer ‘smart’ drugs for this purpose, none of them is bearing fruit.

And for argument’s sake, let’s navigate through some of the promising and exciting events and discoveries were scientists claimed to have found cure for HIV.

 In 2013, a team of researchers from Rutgers New Gersey Medical School announced that they had found what sounds to be the cure for HIV and that was the drug called Deferiprone, a systematic drug commonly prescribed to treat nail fungus. The finding was published in PLOS ONE, an online journal in 2013.

In another case, in 2014, a team of Spanish researchers in Barcelona hypothesize in a report published by Harvard that a blood transplant from a donor with a genetic mutation could prevent HIV from entering cells and replicating.

It was later reported that although the treatment seemed to work in a patient known as the ‘Barcelona Patient’ who was pronounced HIV free after three months – he unfortunately died due to cancer. The latest findings are about snake venom. Indian researchers at the Hyderabad-based Government Homeopathic Medical College, and Indian Institute of Chemical Technology (IICT), claim that a homeopathic medicine from snake venom (Crotalus Horridus) has shown that it can arrest the multiplication of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).

April 2015
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