How One Woman’s Body Cured Itself Of HIV
38 million people are estimated to live with HIV globally; it’s a virus that still has no cure.
But a woman from Argentina has become the second person in the world to reportedly cure herself of the virus with her own immune system.
And it has doctor’s extremely hopeful about the future of HIV treatment.
The Esperanza Patient
The woman was first diagnosed with HIV back in 2013.
Then in 2019, doctors searched over 1.2 billion blood cells in the woman’s body, and through 500 million placenta-tissue cells after she gave birth to an HIV-negative baby last year.
But scientists couldn’t find a single intact viral sequence of the virus in the woman.
And they’re claiming the cure could possibly have happened through natural immunity.
The woman is now known as “the Esperanza patient” – Esperanza is the town in Argentina where she lives, and the word also means hope.
Could HIV Be Cured Through Immunity?
HIV infects cells that are a part of the body’s immune system and, once the immune system is compromised with HIV, it’s extremely difficult to eradicate completely.
That’s because the virus infects long-lived immune cells that can spend long periods in what’s called a resting state.
During a resting state, the viral DNA goes under the radar of a standard HIV treatment called ART because ART can only successfully attack the virus in infected cells that are active and churning out new copies of it.
Most people living with HIV need life-long ART to stop it progressing into AIDS – it if hasn’t already.
But the Esperanza patient appears to catch and then eradicate the virus by herself, without drugs or treatment.
This case is extremely rare, but scientists think it could be proof that some people – who they are calling “elite controllers” – do have a natural resilience to HIV.
And what makes the Esperanza patient so remarkable is that there has been no detectable HIV in her body over the 8 years since she was diagnosed,, despite her immune system clearly showing memory of being infected and her not receiving any treatment.
How Far We Have Come
In the 1980s, during the outbreak of the HIV/AIDS epidemic, there was little hope for those diagnosed with the virus, and it’s still very much a major global health issue today.
But with access to effective prevention like PrEP, treatment, and care, the virus is becoming more and more manageable.
And people with HIV can now live long and healthy lives.
In Australia, the National HIV Strategy wants to eliminate HIV transmissions by 2022.
That’s not zero cases, but rather stopping community transmission of it – which some experts reckon is still a long way away.
Finding A Cure
Dr Xu Yu, who is part of the team who led the study on the Esperanza patient, has called the latest breakthrough “a miracle of the human immune system”.
And he’s hoping there may be a path to “a sterilising cure” for people who whose immune systems aren’t able to do what the Esperanza patient’s can.
One expert in HIV medicine at Imperial College London hopes the work could even help inform other immune therapies that are currently in development.
But other experts argue that the real priority right now should be making sure access to ART is available around the world, particularly in developing countries, because it is already saving lives.