In these difficult times of the COVID-19 pandemic, you’re probably not expecting any happy news coming out of the world of infectious diseases. But here’s some positivity to hold on to: A person in London has become the second-ever person to be completely cured of HIV, the sexually transmitted infection (it is not only a sexually transmitted infection, it can also be transmitted with blood products and sharing needles) that, if untreated, can lead to AIDS.
After going through a stem cell transplant from a donor with an HIV-resistant gene, there was no active viral infection in this person’s blood 30 months after stopping anti-retroviral therapy—the typical treatment for HIV—reports a study on the case published in The Lancet. This is effectively a cure—a word not thrown around lightly in the chronic illness world.
The report does note that there were still remnants of HIV-1 DNA in tissue samples taken from the patient, but these are basically “fossils” that are unlikely to reproduce the actual virus, according to the study authors.
"We propose that these results represent the second ever case of a patient to be cured of HIV,” lead study author Ravindra Kumar Gupta, Ph.D., from the University of Cambridge said in a news release. “Our findings show that the success of stem cell transplantation as a cure for HIV, first reported nine years ago in the Berlin patient, can be replicated."
But that doesn’t mean that everyone with HIV can just go out and get this treatment, Gupta says. Getting a stem cell transplant is a high-risk treatment “only used as a last resort for patients with HIV who also have life-threatening hematological malignancies. Therefore, this is not a treatment that would be offered widely to patients with HIV who are on successful antiretroviral treatment.” But this new case study still brings hope and is a step forward in the search for a cure that can be more widely accessible.
Modern-Day HIV Treatment
While a diagnosis of HIV used to be a death sentence, most people are now able to manage the virus with medication—specifically, use of antiretroviral therapy (ART), according to the National Institutes of Health (NIH). Modern treatment options help most people with HIV live long, healthy lives.
ART also reduces the risk of HIV transmission by bringing what’s called the “viral load” down to a level that’s undetectable in the blood, per the NIH, and helps prevent complications associated with HIV and AIDS. Typically, ART is a combination of medications you must take daily.
There’s also now a medication you can take called PrEP (for pre-exposure prophylaxis) to reduce your risk if you’re at high risk of getting HIV—for example, if you’re in an ongoing sexual relationship with a partner who has HIV. This daily pill helps majorly lower the risk that you’ll contract HIV, according to the Centers of Disease Control and Prevention. Talk to your health care provider to find out if you’re a good candidate for this medication.