Potential HIV breakthrough fuels cautious hope for patients and researchers

AIDS researchers say they are one step closer to curing HIV infection, according to a new report published in the journal Nature about a man in London who appears to be free of the virus. The potential findings mark just the second time in history a patient appears to be in remission. 

Timothy Ray Brown, an American who has been free of HIV for 12 years, reacted to the news.

"I would like to meet the London patient very much," Brown said. "I would say take your time in, if you if you want to become public, do it. And it's been very useful for science and for giving hope to HIV positive people, to people living with HIV."

Both Brown and the latest patient, a man who wishes to remain anonymous, used bone-marrow transplants intended to treat blood cancer but ended up providing them with stem cells that mutated the genes that HIV attaches to.

Researchers say the gene called CCR5 is how the virus enters the immune system in 50% of the people living with HIV.

Anthony Santella is an associate professor of public health at Hofstra University.

"The donor had this mutation of this protein, called CCR5," Santella said. "And when it was given to him in the transplant, the CCR5 mutated and the HIV wasn't able to reattach itself to the white blood cells."

Researchers say there are 36 other people who have been living with HIV, have a blood cancer, and had a bone marrow transplant like the two other men. They're off HIV medications. Doctors are closely monitoring them to see if they'll achieve similar results.

"If this is more than just a fluke—we're not using the word 'cure' because this is just seen in two people out of the 37 million people living with HIV worldwide—that's not a big number," Santella said. "They would ideally try to take these mutated proteins, CCR5s, and inject them into people with HIV with the hopes that once they have this mutated CCR5 their HIV won't be able to attach to the immune cells anymore."

While experts say bone-marrow transplantation is unlikely to be a realistic treatment option in the near future, this finding sheds some light on a potential cure involving gene therapy down the road.

"amfAR is working on the next steps as quickly and efficiently as we can," said Dr. Marcella Flores, Associate Director of Research with amfAR. "We are really working hard. I can't tell you when we'll have a cure that can be useful for everyone but I can tell you were laser-focused on that goal."

According to scientists, worldwide we see nearly 1.8 million new HIV diagnoses and close to 1 million deaths every year.