By: Taren Vaughan
Since its 1981 discovery in the U.S., HIV has been one of the leading causes of death worldwide, especially in the underprivileged areas of Africa. The virus has had a major impact on not only those who suffer from it. It has taken its toll on patients’ family members and friends as well. With all the medical advancements that have been made, HIV still remained incurable. Unlike bacteria, viruses are non living, so HIV can not simply be cured by taking a round of antibiotics. And even though there are vaccines for certain viruses now like HPV, the replication process that HIV undergoes is a lot more complex than your normal virus. The immune system is its prime target as it does serious damage to the white blood cells, making it harder to fight off infections that a HIV negative person would normally have no problem overcoming.
Up until this point in time, there hadn’t been an announced cure for HIV. But it appears that that is about to change. With all of the financial support and diligent work efforts that have been put into researching HIV with hopes of finding a cure for it may have finally paid off.
Back in 2007, a Berlin patient who suffered from both HIV and leukemia underwent stem cell treatment with HIV-resistant stem cells. One could only imagine having cancer and HIV at the same time and how much your body must go through on a daily basis. Luckily, Timothy Ray Brown has a doctor that put some extra thought into how to treat both of his illnesses at the same time. The logic that Dr. Gero Hutter, the patient’s doctor, used was brilliant. He figured that he would attempt to rid Brown of HIV and leukemia. So he did not search for a typical donor. Instead, Dr. Hutter looked to find a donor who possessed the rare mutation CCR5delta32.
Why was this mutation the “chosen one” that Dr. Hutter was searching for?
Donors who have the CCR5delta32 mutation lack the one thing that HIV looks for when in the system…fully functioning CCR5. Sounds pretty complex right? To sum it all up, having these two genes make a person highly resistant to HIV. And knowing this piece of information, Dr. Hutter felt it’d be well worth a shot to see if injecting stem cells from a donor with these genes into his patient would slow the progression of the virus. Slowing the progression is the least of what has appeared to happen.
After receiving the stem cell treatment four years ago, all of Brown’s tissues have been declared to be HIV negative. This news is stunning to many as the complexity of the virus has led us to believe that a cure was nowhere near in the making. But with every treatment, there are side effects that come along with it. As a part of the treatment process, Brown was taken off of his antiviral medications, which resulted in his viral load increasing drastically and him experiencing multiple gastric and neurological problems. Not to mention that his leukemia did come back as well. But the overall outcome of the treatment is something that could change the lives of people who have been living with this virus for years, a number of them being those of African decent.
Discovering a cure for HIV is a scientific breakthrough of a lifetime. It surpasses many others that have led to vaccines and the development of drugs and treatments for other diseases out there. Just like forms of cancer, HIV claims the lives of so many people on a daily basis. So finding a cure for it could have a lasting impact and could lead to a person living a longer life. HIV is no longer the death sentence that it used to be many years ago. People who have the virus are now living much longer and happier lives due to the development of antiviral drugs that control the amount of HIV found in the system. But potentially having the opportunity to be fully cured of the virus and never having to depend on a daily drug regimen to keep you alive and well is something that I am most certain HIV suffers are much looking forward to.