Doctors in the UK may be on the cusp of finding a cure for HIV. A group of five universities has tentatively announced that early tests on the first of 50 patients to undergo a new treatment to try and completely cure the disease have found no virus in the man’s blood, raising hopes that the novel technique may have actually worked. It is important to stress that these are very early days, and only time will tell if it truly has been successful.
The new pioneering treatment involves three steps. The first is using current anti-retroviral drugs to prevent T-cells – the cells of the immune system that are infected by HIV – from spewing out millions more copies of the virus, and in effect keeping it boxed into the cells. Next, they infect the patients with a virus that boosts the immune system, giving it the enhanced ability to find and destroy the still-infected T-cells.
Finally, they gave the patient a second drug known as vorinostat that activates the dormant T-cells, forcing them to express HIV-associated proteins and flagging them up to the enhanced immune system which can then destroy them. This technique has been called the “kick and kill” strategy.
It is hoped that the new treatment will remove all traces of the virus from the body, including in those cells that contain it and lay dormant, often for years at a time. Because of this, however, it means that doctors will not be certain that this patient has truly been cured for a long time.
“It would be great if a cure has happened,” the 44-year-old patient told The Sunday Times. “My last blood test was a couple of weeks ago and there is no detectable virus. However, that could be the anti-retroviral therapies, so we have to wait to be sure.”
Only one person is known to have been cured of HIV. In 2007, the American Timothy Ray Brown underwent a full bone marrow transplant in Germany to treat him for leukaemia, using a donor who was immune to HIV. The stem cells transplanted rebuilt his immune system from the ground up, replacing his own cancerous cells with new ones resistant to HIV. Three years after the surgery, and despite no longer taking anti-retroviral drugs, doctors could find no trace of the virus in Brown’s blood, making him functionally cured of both diseases at once.
The difficulties associated with finding donors who are not only immune to HIV but also a match to the patient mean that replacing the immune system is not a viable option for standard treatment. But if doctors could work around this with other methods such as the one currently being trialed, it could potentially benefit the 37 million people around the world living with the virus. If it does work – and that is a big if – it will be years until it becomes available.