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HIV infection of a human cell. (Photo: National Cancer Institute/Unsplash)

Doctors say a patient in California appears to have been cured of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV). This is the fourth time someone in the world has seemingly recovered from the virus.

The patient, a 66-year-old man who otherwise wished to remain unidentified, had been living with HIV since the 1980s. Before receiving the treatment that appears to have cured him, the patient had been taking antiretroviral drugs, which have been used for the past several decades to prevent the virus from replicating in the body. While such drugs have the ability to prolong the life of an HIV-positive patient, they also come with adverse side effects from gastrointestinal problems to bone loss. These reactions are difficult to control in the long term.

Bone marrow “harvesting” in action. (Photo: Chad McNeely/Wikimedia Commons)

However, banishing the virus for good can free someone from having to endure miserable side effects for a long period of time. It’s just a matter of making sure that the virus remains gone. This patient received bone marrow transplant at City of Hope National Medical Center in Duarte, California. Thanks to a protein mutation in the donor’s white blood cells, the donor is naturally resistant to HIV. The mutation, known as CCR5-Δ32 (pronounced “CCR5-delta 32”), proved beneficial to the patient in the days following his transplant. Over time, HIV becomes undetectable in the patient’s body. That was 17 months ago. The patient has since been in remission.

Despite what appears to be a miracle, the patient’s success story comes with more than one catch. The patient received a blood marrow transplant only after a diagnosis of blood cancer leukemia; his donor simply carries the CCR5-Δ32 variant. Blood marrow transplants are also painful and complicated procedures, making them impractical for frequent use in HIV-positive patients.

Doctors warn that the CCR5-Δ32 variant is also relative uncommon, especially among those of non-European descent. Additionally, some worry that the option itself could abbreviate the life expectancy of people. More research is needed to ensure that it is safe to “give” the variant to others.

Of course, there is a chance that CCR5-Δ32 may prove safe for use in broader HIV treatment (or at least be worth the drawbacks, given those associated with HIV). In this case, we hope that doctors will be well prepared as scientists look for ways to use gene therapy in conjunction with CCR5-Δ32.

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