German Doctor Says He Cured Patient of HIV

This could be a one-time fluke, a temporary condition, or the portend of great things for the future. In any event, it’s a compelling story.

…[I]n an announcement that caused a flutter of excitement and a wave of prudent skepticism, Berlin-based hematologist Gero Huetter claimed on Thursday that he has cured an HIV infection in a 42-year-old man through a bone-marrow transplant.

The patient, a US citizen living in Germany, was suffering from advanced leukemia and HIV two years ago when Huetter treated the cancer with a bone-marrow transplant at Berlin’s Charité hospital. As a side experiment, he inserted the bone marrow of a donor naturally resistant to HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. (Researchers have long known that about 1% of Europeans carry a genetic mutation that makes their cells resistant to HIV infection.) Bone marrow produces the cells that HIV attacks. So, the thinking went, inserting marrow that produces HIV-resistant cells might endow the patient with a means to repel the infection. Twenty months after the transplant, Huetter says, the man shows no signs of carrying the virus. (See stories of people surviving with HIV.)

Is this a viable cure for HIV? Not by a long shot. Even Huetter says bone-marrow transplants, which kill about a third of patients, are so dangerous that “they can’t be justified ethically” in anything other than desperate situations like late-stage leukemia. Nor is it clear that Huetter’s claim to have cured his patient is yet justified. HIV has a frustrating ability to hide in hard-to-detect “reservoir” cells in various parts of the body. Current antiviral drugs, for example, can lower a patient’s “viral load” to the point that HIV is undetectable in his or her bloodstream. But as soon as such patients are taken off antivirals, the virus comes storming back.

Huetter’s patient has not received antivirals for two years and remains virus-free even in the known HIV hiding spots of brain and rectal tissue, according to Huetter’s tests. But many researchers remain skeptical about whether these tests have been thorough enough. 

via Time magazine: Can a Bone-Marrow Transplant Halt HIV?

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