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A “late breaker” finding presented Thursday at the 19th Annual International AIDS Conference in Washington, DC is a shocker, and a very encouraging moment for both victims and combatants of the virus: two more men who contracted both HIV and cancer have been apparently cured of the virus, in cases that seem to confirm that “Berlin patient” Timothy Brown was no fluke. This finding is huge for the scientific community, and says that we are now making major strides toward finding a cure for HIV and AIDS.
The “Berlin Patient” was a man who caught HIV and eventually lost all traces of the disease in his bloodstream.
“Everyone knows about this ‘Berlin patient’. We wanted to see if a simpler treatment would do the same thing,” Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, the overseer of the study, told the assembled body. Brown, who spoke at the conference on Tuesday, was given a bone marrow transplant to treat his leukemia—a transplant that came from a donor with a rare genetic mutation that makes immune cells resistant to infection from the HIV virus. After the transplant replaced his cells with the donor’s healthy, resistant ones, Brown was declared “cured” of AIDS. He has been HIV-free for five years.
One lesson learned from the Brown case is that AIDS victims, who are susceptible to cancer, should not stop taking retroviral drugs before receiving cancer treatment. “That allows the virus to come back and it infects their donor cells,” Kuritzkes explained. And now these additional two men, both treated for lymphoma as well as their AIDS, appear to provide more proof that the overall method used to “cure” Brown is successful. The findings are significant for the African American community, which is heavily impacted by the AIDS virus. Gay black men are the leading demographic when it comes to infection, with black women also being at significant risk.
The men both had stem cell treatments and stayed on HIV drugs throughout the process. That turned out to be the key to finding their cure, which scientists were not really even looking for. “We found that immediately before the transplant and after the transplant, HIV DNA was in the cells,” Kuritzkes continued. “As the patient’s cells were replaced by the donor cells, the HIV DNA disappeared.” It appears the donor cells killed off infected cells and took their place, with the retroviral drugs protecting them as they did so. One patient remains free of the virus two years later, the other for three-and-a-half.