Let’s just start the slow clap rolling for the next few minutes, because this story concerns what could be one of the most groundbreaking discoveries in recent medical history. To be sure, we’re not clapping for science, which isn’t exactly sure what happened yet, but we’re applauding a two-year-old child’s survival instinct. All right, maybe science gets a few claps and hollers, just for being so cool.
For the 2013 Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections, Dr. Deborah Persaud of Johns Hopkins University announced the first ever case of a child cured of the HIV virus. Persaud and the University of Massachusetts’ Dr. Katherin Luzuriaga were awarded the a grant from the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) that allowed them to establish a research collaboratory with other distinguished colleagues, with the goal of exploring and documenting HIV cure cases in children.
Persaud was alerted by the University of Mississippi’s Dr. Hannah Gay to a particular case where an HIV-addled mother gave birth to a child who was immediately diagnosed with HIV and put into antiretroviral treatment. Eighteen months later, the child ceased treatments and was lost to follow up. At 23 months, when the child was back in hospital care, it was given a series of highly sensitive tests, all of which confirmed a complete absence of the HIV virus.
“Given that this cure appears to have been achieved by antiretroviral therapy alone,” said amfAR V.P. and director of research Dr. Rowena Johnston, “it is also imperative that we learn more about a newborn’s immune system, how it differs from an adult’s, and what factors made it possible for the child to be cured.”
This case can only be compared to one other, that of the “Berlin patient,” Timothy Brown, who in 2006 found himself cured of HIV after being treated for leukemia. Brown was given a stem-cell transplant from someone who was born with a genetic mutation that makes a person immune to HIV infection, the virus was eradicated from his body soon after, and he was able to stop treatments.
“We are proud to have played a leading role in bringing this first pediatric HIV cure to light,” said amfAR CEO Kevin Robert Frost. “The case is a startling reminder that a cure for HIV could come in ways we never anticipated, and we hope this is the first of many children cured of HIV in the months and years to come.”
That’s a big, mighty, seven-knuckled middle finger to HIV, which has done far more damage to the Earth’s population than it seems possible. Perhaps researchers will also figure out how to replicate that genetic mutation and see how well it adapts in other people’s bodies. I usually end with a joke, but today the levity gives way to awestruck joy.
Image via NIH/National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases