Two men who were previously struck with HIV seem to have been cured of the virus. If they truly were, their cases present exciting new hope for millions of people throughout the world with the virus.
The two cases were presented at the 19th annual International AIDS Conference in Washington D.C. Both patients received a bone marrow transplant over two years ago and to this day do not seem to show any signs of having HIV.
Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes of Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston conducted the study, in the hopes that these two patients would have the same results as the now famous “Berlin patient”. 46-year-old Timothy Brown received a bone marrow transplant to cure his leukemia and the treatment seemed to cure his HIV as well. After five years, Brown appears to be HIV free.
The doctors who conducted the transplant believe that Brown received marrow from a donor who had developed an immunity to HIV through a genetic mutation held by 1% of Caucasians. Researchers are tentatively hopeful that these two new cases, along with the case of Timothy Brown, will provide a cure.
Another group of scientists, sponsored by Sangamo Biosciences in California, is pursuing a cure for HIV through gene therapy. Greg Cassin, has been HIV positive since the 1980’s, yet he seems to have some resistance to the virus. Researchers believe that it is the presence of a genetic mutation – the CCR5 mutation – that is responsible for his unusually robust immune system. It just so happens that the CCR5 mutation was also present in Brown’s bone marrow donor, and the gene could be the key to success.
Up until these discoveries, the only means of managing HIV have been through continuous antiviral drug treatments. Even though these drugs have provided a significant advancement in the management of the virus, the costs have prevented the poorer half of the 34 million people afflicted with HIV from receiving treatment. Many doctors, including Dr. Steven Deeks of the AIDS Research Institute at the University of California, San Francisco, seem to think that pharmaceutical developments have reached a plateau. “I think these drugs have gotten as good as they are going to get,” said Dr. Deeks.
Yet despite Dr. Deeks’s pessimistic view of further advancements in antiviral treatment, he is still among the more than 40 scientists who have responded to the International AIDS Society’s call to develop a cure. Working with Nobel Prize winning French virologist Francoise Barre-Sinoussi, the group has developed a research agenda that they hope will provide insights into the causes of the virus and how to prevent it.
The research that spurs them on suggests that we may be even closer to a vaccine than we thought. In 2009, the RV144 clinical trial in Thailand demonstrated a 31.2% drop in HIV infection rates. The study combined two different drugs that were unsuccessful in individual studies to bring about increased effectiveness. Although a 31% immunization rate is not exactly successful, researchers hope to incorporate new developments that will make the vaccine more effective. Additionally, a new series of vaccines is being tested that trains T-cells to recognize and kill HIV-infected cells, something that has prevented successful treatment thus far. Both of these different methods could provide clues that bring us closer to ending HIV/AIDS.
To develop a cure for HIV/AIDS would truly be a phenomenal breakthrough for the health and well being of millions of people throughout the world. It is marvelous and exciting to think that we live in a time when such technological advances are possible. And it is equally marvelous and wonderful that God has created us in his image to be able to accomplish such impressive achievements. When we use our intellectual abilities to help our fellow human beings, when our heart are moved with compassion to pursue just and noble feats, that is when we most readily participate in the Divine Nature. When we act in the fullness of our potential to promote human flourishing, that is when we are most like God and thus most able to achieve happiness in this life.
May God continue to bless us with an abundance of wisdom and grace!