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Tentative HIV "Cure" Presents a Guarded Sense of Hope

By Candace Y.A. Montague

December 15, 2010

Stem cell transplant -- the cure for HIV? Photo:

Stem cell transplant -- the cure for HIV? Photo:

On the heels of two major medical breakthroughs in HIV research this year (vaginal gel Tenofovir and the antiretroviral Truvada pill) comes a third development. Scientists in Germany have declared that they have found a potential cure for HIV and leukemia simultaneously. The announcement, originally published in a peer-reviewed journal called Blood, broke yesterday. In the journal, doctors in Berlin say they have found an agressive yet effective treatment that would restore a patient's T-cell count to one that would equal a person who is HIV negative. American scientists, while pleased, are very cautious about celebrating the news just yet.

The patient, a 44-year-old American named Timothy Brown, underwent treatment for HIV and his acute myeloid leukemia, (a cancer of the immune system) in 2007. Using stem cells from an adult donor (no embryos) who had an inherited gene mutation that left his body without the gene receptors involved in contracting HIV, Brown's doctors chose to use a stem cell transplant in lieu of the traditional stem cell therapy used for leukemia patients. They expected to treat his HIV while working on the cancer. After three years of study, the results were that Brown maintained a high CD4 count and no signs that the HIV was replicating in his system. The authors of the report concluded "the patient remains without any evidence for HIV infection since more than 3.5 years after discontinuation of ART (antiretroviral therapy). From these results, it is reasonable to conclude that cure of HIV infection has been achieved in this patient."

Brown had endured intense chemotherapy and full-body radiation to fight his leukemia. This kind of treatment is damaging to the immune system but can also help it become more receptive to new, HIV-resistant stem cells. Dr. Margaret Fischl, top AIDS researcher at the University of Miami, says "I would call this a functional cure. It's on the level and a very remarkable case. But would we do this with an HIV patient? No." The treatment is very debilitating and is above and beyond what most doctors would recommend to handle HIV. Dr. Michael Saag, researcher at the University of Alabama at Birmingham says, "We can't really apply this particular approach to healthy individuals because the risk is just too high. Especially when drugs can keep HIV in check in most cases. Unless someone with HIV also had cancer, a transplant would not likely be considered." Still, most doctors are excited about the news of a potential cure. No one is probably more excited than Timothy Brown who took a risk and in return has been given a second chance at life.

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See Also
The First Man to Be Cured of AIDS: An Update on the Amazing Story -- This Month in HIV
Timothy Brown: The Other Side of the Cure
Thoughts on the Berlin Patient and a Cure for HIV/AIDS
I'm Not Cured Yet
Is It Time to Celebrate the "Cure"?
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?


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D.C. HIV/AIDS Examiner

Candace Y.A. Montague

Candace Y.A. Montague

Candace Y.A. Montague has been learning about HIV since 1988 (and she has the certificates from the American Red Cross to prove it). Health is a high priority to Candace because she believes that nothing can come of your life if you're not healthy enough to enjoy it. One of her two master's degrees is in Community Health Promotion and Education. Candace was inspired to act against HIV after seeing a documentary in 2008 about African-American women and HIV. She knew that writing was the best way for her to make a difference and help inform others. Candace is a native Washingtonian and covers HIV news all around D.C. She has covered fundraisers, motorcycle rides, town hall meetings, house balls, Capitol Hill press conferences, election campaigns and protests for The DC and emPower News Magazine.

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