Given the devastating long-term effects of the HIV virus if undiagnosed, and the challenge it has put forward to science, it is not surprising that news regarding a potential cure for HIV has hit the headlines. Here we take a look at the recent case of an infant who is claimed to have been cured of HIV in an effort to tease out potential implications for adults with HIV.
Essentially, the infant was the offspring of a woman who not too long ago had found out that she was HIV positive. As a result of not knowing about the virus, the mother had not received prenatal treatment for HIV, which increased the risk of the infant being infected with HIV. Once the baby was born it was tested for HIV, and before the lab results had returned, the medical team had already put the baby on a cocktail of common treatments for HIV. What happened next was remarkable. The infant’s immune system responded astoundingly well to the medications, and within 29 days of starting treatment the baby was considered functionally cured of HIV. After having received further treatment for ten months, the baby was followed up with two blood tests and several tests for HIV-specific antibodies. All of these indicated that there were no detectable levels of HIV.
This is only the second time a person has been cured from HIV. The first case was the infamous “Berlin Patient”, who was an adult that had been cured as a result of his cancer treatment in which he received blood stem cell transplants that contained delta 32 (a known genetic mutation found to increase resistance towards HIV).
Although this is only the second time that a person has been cured from HIV, the implications are in stark contrast to each other. Obviously, an infant’s immune system is very different from an adult’s immune system. Furthermore, most adults do not find out about their HIV infection until months or even years after they have been infected. It is not speculative to assume that the virus may have expanded more after a few months than after a few days, and that the treatment options are likely to be more complex in adult cases especially if previous co-morbidities exist.
It also appears that the implications of the baby case do not fit into the two lines of research that are looking into the cure for HIV for adults. The first line of research is based on considering whether cancer drugs may have an effect on the virus. The second line of research is based on the Berlin Patient case and exploring the genetic mutation that he received. Both of these require extensive, time-consuming studies and results could be years off.
While these studies and the news from the USA may be exciting, there is currently no cure. Safer sex is the only way that you can minimise the risk of HIV transmission and at risk groups are advised to get tested regularly as the sooner a person is diagnosed and put on treatment, the greater the chance of a normal life expectancy. The STI Clinic advocates condom use as this is the only way to minimise the risk of sexually transmitted infections.