Scientists are celebrating news of a breakthrough in HIV research.
Two weeks after the news first emerged that a baby girl in Mississippi had been ‘cured’ of the HIV virus there is more evidence that a further 14 adults may have been ‘functionally cured’.
The report comes from the Pasteur Institute’s unit in Paris where 70 patients have been monitored by HIV researchers. The majority of participants, who had come off their treatment for a variety of reasons, relapsed as soon as they stopped medication. However, 14 of the adults, known as the ‘Visconti Cohort’, did not relapse and have been medication-free for an average of seven years.
The patients had all started antiretroviral drugs very soon after being infected, from 35 days to 10 weeks and had been taking the drugs for an average of three years.
Scientists are warning other patients not to try to come off their medication. They are keen to stress that the cases are very rare and that the patients had been caught in the very early stages of the virus. They also emphasise that there is no way of knowing how long the ‘functional cure’ could last.
A ‘functional cure’ occurs when the virus is still present in the body, but at such low levels that it will not have an effect and medical treatment is not needed.
“Whether they’ll control it forever, or whether it’ll be for a number of years and subsequently they will progress and the virus will reappear, we don’t know,” said Dr Andrew Freedman from Cardiff University.
Scientists will continue to examine why only some patients were ‘functionally cured.’
Asier Sáez-Cirión from the Pasteur Institute told New Scientist “There are three benefits to early treatment. It limits the reservoir of HIV that can persist, limits the diversity of the virus and preserves the immune response to the virus that keeps it in check.”
Although this treatment is very limited with a low success rate it supports the need for early testing. Unfortunately, the majority of adults with HIV are not diagnosed this early, with many going months or even years before being diagnosed.
It was also announced this week by Aidsmap that gene therapy studies have shown potential for HIV control without drugs. Evidence from a patient who was given a bone marrow transplant from a donor with a natural resistance to the infection was also ‘functionally cured’ three years after the procedure.