These Are The Only People Who Have Ever Been Cured Of HIV -- For Real!
No, Magic Johnson isn't one of them. There's a real cure for HIV! The only problem is that it involves having leukemia and undergoing an extremely risky stem cell transplant, which isn't widely applicable or practical for everybody living with HIV (plus it ain't cheap). We also have cases of "functional cures," where people still have very little HIV in their bodies, but no longer need to take meds to control the virus. So here's a quick look at the most solidly documented HIV cure cases we know of today.
1. Timothy Brown -- "The Berlin Patient"
And in the beginning, there was Timothy Brown. An American man living in Berlin, Brown was diagnosed with HIV in 1995 and with advanced leukemia in 2006. With his prognosis looking grim, Brown was approached by German oncologist Gero Hutter, M.D. -- the first doctor to cure HIV, who proposed a never-before-attempted stem cell transplant in which the donor was immune to most forms of HIV because of a rare mutation on his CD4 cells. The hope was that Brown would inherit this mutation and immunity.
The procedure was extremely risky -- and stunningly successfully. Brown's leukemia remains in remission, and there is still no sign of active HIV anywhere in his body, even though he has been off of HIV medications since shortly after his operation.
2. "The Boston Duo"
The stem cell transplant undergone by Timothy Brown was very dangerous and awfully expensive, making a repeat performance very difficult. In 2009-2010, two men in Boston received stem cell transplants similar to the one Timothy Brown received, though the donor cells they received were not resistant to HIV.
However, the two men were on HIV treatment throughout the transplant process, which may have prevented the HIV in their bodies from infecting the new donor cells. They stayed on treatment up until a few months ago and still appear free of HIV.
3. "The VISCONTI Cohort"
This study began with a simple hypothesis: start people on HIV treatment super early -- very shortly after getting infected with HIV -- and it might be possible to prevent HIV from establishing a permanent foothold in the body. When you are infected with HIV, the virus establishes what experts call a "reservoir" of the virus in your body. Therefore, the idea was earlier treatment, smaller reservoir. (These HIV reservoirs are hidden and hard to target. They are also considered
the last obstacle standing between complete HIV eradication.)
The VISCONTI study was one high-profile attempt to test this hypothesis. Fourteen people started extremely early treatment and stayed on treatment for at least a year before stopping.
Surprisingly, researchers found that once they stopped treatment, these people were still able to control the virus -- meaning their HIV viral load remained undetectable without them having to take meds, as though their immune system had been "trained" to fight off the virus.
These people, called "post-treatment controllers" are now considered to be in "long-term functional remission" of their HIV infection.
4. "The Mississippi Baby"
In March 2013, it was announced that a baby born in Mississippi was cured of HIV after being infected at birth. Similar to the VISCONTI group, the key to success in this case was starting HIV treatment very early with the most potent drugs available.
This was extremely unusual, as babies born to HIV-positive mothers often have extremely good chances of being born without HIV, as long as the mother is on treatment and the baby is treated at birth. But in this case, the mother was not in care or on treatment. So while many saw the cured baby as a story of hope, some saw it as a story of a failure of the system that was not able to get this mother -- and her baby -- into proper pre-natal treatment, raising many questions about racial inequality and black women's access to HIV treatment.
5. "The Wisconsin Pre-Teen"
In April 2013, news arrived about Eric Blue, a 12-year-old boy in Minnesota who had received a stem cell transplant using HIV-resistant donor cells to treat his HIV and leukemia -- the same procedure undergone by Timothy Ray Brown. However, instead of using bone marrow, the doctors used umbilical cord blood, which is more available and easier to find a donor match for.
Though the procedure went well, and tests showed no signs of HIV or leukemia in Eric's body, unfortunately he passed away from post-procedure complications. But the silver lining is that the procedure looked like a success and could lead to a new approach of using cord blood to treat or even cure people living with HIV.
6. "The German Senior"
Is there something in the water in Germany? A 67-year-old German man who was diagnosed with HIV in 1999 and had started immediate treatment decided to interrupt his treatment after five and a half years (this was under the guidance of his doctor). Even though he had interrupted treatment, his doctors are still unable to detect HIV in his body for nine years now after he has stopped treatment. They even tested him to make sure he didn't have the rare genetic mutation that makes some resistant to HIV, but he didn't, meaning it's another unique case of an HIV cure.
There's still a long way to go until we have a practical, widely applicable cure, but with the number of people cured hovering just under two dozen, we can't help but be enthusiastic that one day, the cure will be available for all those living with HIV.