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Second HIV patient cleared of AIDS-causing virus

March 5, 2019

Doctors found that a bone marrow transplant has rid an HIV-positive patient of the virus that causes the deadly AIDS disease. While hailing the results, they cautioned that it is too early to say he has been cured.

A person with gloves puts medical test tubes into a holder
Image: picture-alliance/dpa/G. Bally

Researchers have announced that a man infected with the HIV virus, which causes AIDS, is in sustained remission following a bone marrow transplant from an HIV-resistant donor. This makes the man, known as the "London patient," the second person ever to have been cleared of the fatal virus that affects some 37 million people worldwide.

The treatment and result was published in the international science journal Nature and is expected to be officially announced at a medical conference in Seattle on Tuesday.

The scientists used the same method that proved successful for an an HIV-positive patient in Berlin in 2007. In both cases, the transplant was intended to treat blood cancers.

"By achieving remission in a second patient using a similar approach, we have shown that the Berlin patient was not an anomaly," lead researcher Ravindra Gupta said.

Rare genetic mutation

Both HIV-positive patients with blood cancers received bone marrow stem cells from donors who had genetic mutations to the HIV receptor, known as CCR5, that made them resistant to the virus. Replacing the infected patients' cells with the mutated ones seems to keep HIV from coming back after the treatment.

The "London patient" was diagnosed with HIV in 2003 and has been on antiretroviral therapy (ARV) since 2012, which suppresses the virus but does not eliminate it. After being diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma, a deadly cancer, he received the bone marrow transplant in 2016. He then continued on ARV for 16 more months before stopping the treatment. He has shown no signs of the HIV virus for 19 months now.

'Functionally cured'

"There is no virus there that we can measure. We can't detect anything," Gupta said. However, he cautioned that, "It's too early to say he's cured," instead describing the patient as "functionally cured" and "in remission."

The researcher said  this second instance of successfully clearing a patient of HIV would help narrow the range of treatment strategies, but he emphasized that bone marrow transplants, which are dangerous, painful and and expensive, would not be a viable option for HIV treatment.  

Only 59 percent of people living with HIV worldwide receive ARV. Some one million individuals die annually from HIV-related causes, and AIDS has killed around 35 million since it began in the 1980s.

The "London patient" requested anonymity from his medical team.

cmb/rt (Reuters, AFP)

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