HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system. If HIV is not treated, it can lead to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome). An estimated 38 million people across the world are living with HIV.
HIV is extremely difficult to flush out of the human body, as it infects long-lived immune cells that serve as a viral reservoir. This helps the viral DNA sustain for a long time, evading standard antiretroviral treatments.
A natural suppressor of HIV
In a landmark development, a woman in Argentina has become a natural suppressor of HIV. The woman is 30 years old and she is now the second documented person who has defeated HIV with default immunity. She is known as the Esperanza patient, named after the Argentine town where she lives. She was diagnosed with the virus back in 2013.
The Esperanza patient is delighted at the rare development and said: “I enjoy being healthy. I have a healthy family. I don’t have to medicate, and I live as though nothing has happened. This already is a privilege.”
Ragon Institute’s viral immunologist Dr. Xu Yu led the study of the patient along with Dr. Natalia Laufer. The latter serves as INBIRS Institute’s physician-scientist. The study findings were published in the Annals of Internal Medicine.
Commenting on the study, University of California’s HIV researcher Dr. Steven Deeks said: “Now we have to figure out the mechanisms. How does this happen? And how can we recapitulate this therapeutically with everybody?”
Dr. Yu was also involved in another study carried out in 2020 that covered 64 patients who are known as elite controllers of HIV. They are rare patients whose immune systems can suppress the replication the capacity of the virus to minimal levels without the use of antiretrovirals.
The researchers think the two women with natural suppression showed a rare killer T-cell response and that is what eliminated the virus. Someday, researchers hope to repeat the process through therapy.
The Esperanza patient started working with the team of Dr. Yu in 2019. The scientists scanned for viable HIV in her blood cells. She gave birth to an HIV-negative baby in 2020. The team used very sophisticated genetic-sequencing techniques.
The finding sheds new light on ongoing HIV research. Dr. Yu noted: “We’re never going to be 100 percent sure there’s absolutely no intact virus, no functional virus anywhere in her body. To bring what we learn from these patients to a broader patient population is our ultimate goal.”
Searching for a cure
Scientists have been trying numerous methods to cure HIV, including gene therapy, block, and lock and kick and kill methods. Scientists have utilized therapeutic vaccines to boost the immune response of the body to the virus. To date, this method has cured two patients therapeutically. In both cases, stem cell transplants were used — a method that is both complex and dangerous.
There are also some instances of people being able to control or reduce viral load even after stopping antiretroviral treatment. This is likely if the patient starts such therapy soon after getting afflicted with the virus. Some such people lived without experiencing viral load rebound for some years.
There are other inspiring instances of HIV patients resisting the killer virus. There are cases of London resident Adam Castillejo and U.S. resident Timothy Ray Brown. They received stem cell transplants from donors having a rare genetic abnormality that turned their immune cells HIV resistant. Another such case was disclosed by the Düsseldorf University Hospital.
While these findings are encouraging, scientists want to know exactly how the genetic setup of these patients proved to be effective in neutralizing or eliminating the killer virus over time.