In an NHS funded trial, a 44-year-old British man may now be the first person in the world to be cured of HIV. The trial, run collectively by doctors and scientists at the universities of Oxford, Cambridge, Imperial College London, King’s College London and UCL, involves fifty patients and the man in question is the first to have completed it.
Although researchers say it is still too early to be certain, tests show no trace of the virus in the patient’s blood despite his having previously been HIV positive. This new development, if proven to be successful, could provide hope for future treatments for the 35 million people estimated by the World Health Organisation to be living with HIV around the world.
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) attacks the immune system, leaving those affected vulnerable to infections and disease. The virus is found in an infected person’s body fluids, but cannot be transmitted through sweat or urine. Instead, people are infected through unprotected sex and using contaminated injecting equipment, but it can also be transmitted from an infected mother to her baby during pregnancy, birth or breastfeeding. AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome) is the final stage of the virus when the body can no longer fight life-threatening conditions.
Mark Samuels, from the National Institute for Health Research told The Sunday Times: “This is one of the first serious attempts at a full cure for HIV. This is a huge challenge and it’s still early days, but the progress has been remarkable.” The anonymous man, who says he wanted to participate to help fellow sufferers of the virus, received a unique therapy that may revolutionise how we currently treat the life-threatening disease. In this new treatment patients are subject to a two-stage “kick and kill” treatment, which tracks down all HIV cells, including difficult to reach dormant ones, and then destroys them all.
Currently, the available treatments for the disease are antiretroviral therapies. Whilst these existing treatments allow people who are HIV positive, estimated to include 103,700 UK citizens at the end of 2014, to live relatively long and healthy lives, they cannot provide patients with a full cure. Although the drugs cannot kill or cure the virus, they can prevent its growth and development, preventing it from becoming AIDS, as well as reducing the likelihood of transmitting HIV to others.
Other available treatments include post-exposure prophylaxis (PEP), which can only be effective for those who take the treatment within 72 hours of being exposed to the virus.
Despite the promising results in this individual case, Sarah Fidler, a consultant physician at Imperial College London, said that medical tests will still continue for five years and that they are still a long way from any actual therapy.
Until a time when any such cure is able to be provided to patients, this new breakthrough could offer hope to people affected by the virus.