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Can HIV Infection Be Cured?

July 23, 2014

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Table of Contents

What Have We Learned About HIV?

In 1981, several cases of rare pneumonia (PCP, see Fact Sheet 515) and skin cancer called Kaposi's sarcoma (see Fact Sheet 511) were reported. These cases were in homosexual men in Los Angeles and New York City. This was a mystery to researchers.

The virus that causes AIDS was identified in 1983. No medications were available to treat this disease until 1987. In that year, a cancer drug called zidovudine (AZT) was found to slow down the multiplication of the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV.)

By 2011, over 30 medications had been approved to fight HIV. None of these drugs kills the virus. Each of them slows down HIV at a specific point of its life cycle (see Fact Sheet 106.)

Hope for a Cure

In 1996, several research studies suggested that triple-drug combinations could drive HIV into remission or eradicate it. Many people taking combinations of antiretroviral medications have an undetectable viral load (see Fact Sheet 125.)

However, by some estimates, only 2% of the virus in the body is in the blood, where it can be measured by viral load tests. Even in patients taking potent triple medication combinations, HIV was not eradicated.

Where Does the Virus Hide?

Very early in HIV infection, the virus becomes part of the genetic code of millions of cells. Some of these cells are hidden from the immune system, and from antiviral medications. Areas where the virus is hiding are called reservoirs. These include the genital tract and the central nervous system. One researcher estimated that it might take 70 years of controlling HIV to eliminate these reservoirs.

The Berlin Patient

Another boost to hopes for an HIV cure came from the "Berlin patient." This was a person with HIV living in Berlin who also had leukemia. Standard leukemia treatment failed. He then received a bone marrow transplant. This wiped out his immune system. It was replaced from a donor with a rare genetic mutation that made him resistant to HIV infection. When the treatments were completed, the Berlin patient had no sign of HIV in his body.

Bone marrow transplants are dangerous. As many as 1/3 of patients who get them die from the procedure. Therefore, it is not clear that the success of the Berlin patient could or should be tried in anyone else. However, this case provides some clues about how HIV might be removed from a patient.

More Good Results

In 2013, several AIDS researchers reported "cure" results. These were not carefully designed as cure studies. However, for the individuals involved, the results were considered a "functional cure." This means that even without antiretroviral therapy, their viral load stayed under control.

An infant girl in Mississippi given antiretroviral drugs soon after birth was thought to be cured of her HIV, but a recent report shows that her virus has returned.

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This article was provided by AIDS InfoNet. Visit AIDS InfoNet's website to find out more about their activities and publications.
See Also
No Proof of New HIV Cure, Despite Headlines -- Here's What We Know
The Only Cases of HIV Cure or Remission
Beyond the Berlin Patient: How Researchers Are Now Trying to Cure More HIV-Positive People (Video)
What Would an HIV Cure Mean for You?
More Research on a Cure for HIV/AIDS

Reader Comments:

Comment by: Anonymous Wed., Sep. 19, 2012 at 3:18 am UTC
will there ever be any cure in the near future
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Comment by: alive2 (ny state) Mon., Jun. 11, 2012 at 2:58 am UTC
although a cure would be great, im worried that misinformation and belief in it, would cause people to live a dangerous lifestyle. and knowing that the risk isnt there it would move all realistic research back and people would be in further danger with the thinking there is a cure and not care or practice safe sex, or begin to not care because of 1 person being "cured".
until i see definitive proof im skeptical in thinking there is a cure, so i will stay on my medications and practice safe sex, and when the proof is there i would enjoy getting rid of this problem i live with as i believe all of us would.
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Comment by: Greg F. (Melbourne Australia) Sun., Jun. 10, 2012 at 7:40 am UTC
This is so awesome. I am sure that as a society we will strive as fast as we can to ensure all members of our community are safe well and happy
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Comment by: PJ (Florida) Sat., Jun. 9, 2012 at 2:29 am UTC
I am surprised that this website has no mention of MIT's "Drago", which was announced in August of 2011.
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Comment by: Poz In Tampa (Tampa FL) Fri., Jun. 8, 2012 at 11:21 pm UTC
What's the purpose of this article? It asks a question and doesn't come close to answering the question. It's simply a watered down history of HIV and research with nothing new or substantative
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Comment by: odanga (nairobi) Fri., Jun. 8, 2012 at 10:38 am UTC
We for God to give researcher more knowledge and open up their minds to get a cure for this virus which has ruined may lives.
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Comment by: morgan (zambia) Fri., Jun. 8, 2012 at 2:51 am UTC
a cure is long over due.
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Comment by: Jo (Nyc) Thu., Jun. 7, 2012 at 1:41 pm UTC
I hope they find sth soon, this is quite a bueden to carry.
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