Last Wednesday, researchers at the International AIDS Society in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia announced that two HIV-positive cancer patients who were simultaneously taking antiretroviral drugs and undergoing bone marrow stem cell treatments appear to be free of the virus.
Both of these men had been suffering from longstanding HIV and had undergone bone marrow transplant for treatment of lymphoma that had relapsed after being treated with chemotherapy. The patients received immunosuppressants as well as bone marrow transplants. They remained on combined antiretroviral therapy after the transplants in hopes that the lymphoma cells would be killed and that the donor marrow cells would engraft in the patients, giving them healthy bone marrow. What the researchers didn’t expect was that all traces of HIV would be removed as well. In both patients, all evidence of HIV in both plasma and peripheral blood mononuclear cells vanished after receiving the donor marrows and being maintained on antiretroviral therapy.
Even with this breakthrough, doctors hesitate to call the development a “cure,” and are unsure if it can be replicated in the tens of millions of people with HIV and AIDS. However, it does add to existing evidence that aggressive drug treatment is critical to killing off the virus and potentially eradicating the disease, since HIV drugs appear to be both curative and preventative in nature.
Still, researchers warn not to take too much away from the successful cases. Turning individual, seemingly successful procedures such as the ones that the cancer patients underwent into a widespread cure will prove difficult, since painful and expensive bone marrow transplants aren’t necessarily a viable option for mass-marketing. But, if the patients stay HIV-free without returning to daily doses of antiretroviral drugs, scientists believe that the fight against HIV and AIDS will take on a more targeted nature, and an actual cure could be on the horizon.