Second Remission Brings Hope to the HIV Community

Riley Sims, Co-Editor-in-Chief

It has been 10 years since the first patient, also known as the Berlin patient, was cleared from HIV. However, a case study published on March 5, in the multidisciplinary scientific journal Nature announced that a second person sustained remission from HIV-1 for more than a year.

Both patients underwent stem cell transplants from donors with a rare genetic mutation that made them resistant to the disease that affects 36.9 million people worldwide, according to UNAIDS, an advocate for action on HIV/AIDS. The patient’s recovery is considered another positive advancement in finding a cure for HIV.

“I think it’s incredible,” AP Biology teacher Dustin Barth said. “Any virus on its own is challenging to say we’ve cured it. Just the nature of the virus makes it difficult, and I think a second patient [that] we’ve had some success in removing the threat completely is always a big step.”

While the stem cell transplant has at this point been proven effective in two patients, the transplant isn’t recommended for all patients, especially those who aren’t diagnosed with cancer. Stem cell transplants require chemo, which is toxic and can weaken the immune system greatly. The two patients underwent the transplant because both were already receiving chemotherapy and had their immune systems wiped out. The stem cell transplant wasn’t only used to combat HIV, but also to help their immune system by destroying their blood cells and restoring them with stem cells from a healthy donor.

“The problem there is compatibility,” Barth said. “You’re asking to take someone else’s bone marrow and put it in a different person. Our bodies are so temperamental, and they’re so on high alert to make sure it’s our cells, it’s our being that’s inside us that, when something else is placed there, if it’s not a 100 percent matching, then there’s an issue with it working effectively and producing the same thing.”

While this procedure may not be suited for everyone, scientists are looking at it for other possible solutions, like gene and immune modifying therapies. Right now, antiretroviral therapy (ART) is a treatment option that is suitable for everyone and involves a combination of HIV medicines taken daily to prevent the HIV virus from multiplying. While these medications are not cures, they help patients live longer and the immune system recover from the damage caused by HIV.

“People with HIV now will often live their entire lives without having it develop in full blown AIDS,” HST teacher Eva Macaluso said. “They’ve developed better, more effective medications, so you don’t have to take quite so many of them. You do have to take your medication for the rest of your life, or until they develop a definitive cure for HIV, because it’s like any other virus. It lives in your body forever.”

While there has been great progress made against the disease so far, more campaigns aimed at raising awareness and encouraging testing and diagnosis have helped the fight against the disease as well. Other preventive measures include practicing safe sex with condoms and getting tested for HIV.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recommends people between the ages of 13 and 64 get tested at least once a year. Initially, an antigen/antibody test or an antibody test will be used, and if found positive, follow-up testing will be conducted. Early diagnosis is key in fighting against this vicious disease, because treatments can decrease the chances of opportunistic infections and HIV-related cancers.

“[Testing] is very very important because there’s actually a good chance that if you’re in the early stages of HIV infection that you wouldn’t even realize that you have it, and sometimes it can take months, if not a couple of years, to start to really be symptomatic in a way that you would go get checked out,” Macaluso said. “Most insurances will cover STI testing, because it’s cheaper to diagnose you when you’re earlier on in whatever stage of infection you might be, but even if you don’t have insurance, there are a lot of resources out there for free and low cost HIV testing.”