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  • Writer's pictureSinead Mackintosh

HIV Cure?!

Viruses seem to dominate the news and social media lately, and yet a more notorious and infamous virus has slipped under the media radar. Human Immunodeficiency Virus infection (HIV) and Acquired Immune Deficiency (AIDS) are their more formal names. Still, they have been around for decades and affect about 37.9 million people, with over 700 000 deaths per year globally. Now, we have all heard that HIV is incurable and that only with strict adherence to medical advice do people live longer and have a better quality of life. However, this medication is not the same as a cure, and so researchers have spent unbelievable amounts of time, effort, and money into developing a cure.

In 2009 a paper reported the first person to be cured of HIV. Massive, groundbreaking, life-changing medicine? Um, no, unfortunately not. While this research is essential, it is not a feasible “cure” for the millions of people living with HIV. This patient had two terrible conditions, HIV and acute myeloid leukemia (a type of blood cancer). The patient underwent “total body irradiation,” which aims to eradicate the immune system, so that donor tissue is not rejected. Then the patient was given stem cell replacements with a particular type of donor cell. These cells did not have the normal receptor for HIV! Therefore, all of his new blood cells could not be infected by HIV, making him practically immune.

In 2019, researchers tried again. This patient also had cancer and received donor cells that lacked the HIV receptor but did not undergo total body irradiation. This is a more promising method of “curing” HIV since the immune system did not need to be destroyed. Nevertheless, this is not the silver bullet for HIV. This type of treatment is still very high risk, and Prof Gupta from the research team states that it is “only used as a last resort for patients with HIV who also have life-threatening hematological [blood] malignancies.”

Research is ongoing, and treatment plans are getting more effective at keeping the virus replication under control. There are multiple tricky features of HIV that help make the cure elusive. But there is hope that the more we understand about the virus and its effects on humans, the closer we can come to curing it.

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