Kate Byng-Hall reveals the long awaited breakthrough in finding a curable solution for HIV. | Health and Nutrition
Photo by Laura Cros
The second person ever has been cured of HIV in London. Adam Castillejo, 40, is still free of the virus more than 30 months after stopping anti-retroviral therapy (ART) for it.
Castillejo, otherwise known as the ‘London Patient’, was found to have been cured of the disease after receiving a stem-cell transplant to cure the unrelated cancer which he was also suffering from. It is yet to be determined whether his recovery could have a meaningful contribution to the formulation of a universal cure for the virus.
Scientists say that HIV originated in Kinshasa, Democratic Republic of Congo and is said to have transmitted over from monkeys, to chimpanzees before finally crossing over to humans in the 1920s, causing a worldwide pandemic.
What is HIV?
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that damages cells in the immune system, thus decreasing the body’s ability to fight everyday infections and disease.
The virus is seen as such a threat because, if left untreated, it can lead to contraction of AIDS (acquired immune deficiency syndrome), a number of potentially life-threatening infections and illnesses that can occur when the immune system has been severely damaged by HIV.
HIV can be passed from person to person through sexual fluids, blood, or breastmilk, meaning it is primarily spread through sexual intercourse, sharing needles, or breastfeeding. A particularly vulnerable group to the disease is men who have sex with men, which led to massive stigma surrounding the virus in the 1980s when it was less understood.
The most dangerous aspect of HIV is that it is possible to have it in your system for many years without you being aware. Many people have a fever when they initially contract the virus, but then have no symptoms after that despite it living in their bodies, gradually weakening their immune systems. This fact makes the need for the development of a cure all the more urgent, but it has proved a very difficult task.
“Cost of treatment, drug toxicities, interaction with other drugs and persistence of inflammation and acceleration of the aging process, all put together, warrant an urgent need for a total cure” – Murugan Sankaranantham, Indian Journal of Sexually Transmitted Diseases and AIDS
Two People Cured
The ‘London Patient’ follows the ‘Berlin Patient’, the first person to be cured of the virus in the world.
In 2007, Timothy Ray Brown, the ‘Berlin Patient’, received a stem-cell transplant in his bone marrow to cure his leukaemia, and subsequently also his HIV. Castillejo and Brown’s transplants had a significant factor in common which made their recovery from HIV possible: both of their donors possessed a rare genetic mutation which protects against HIV, meaning that when the patients received these transplants, their genes also became capable of warding off the virus.
After this breakthrough, research was conducted to see whether stem-cell transplants from donors who did have this rare gene would have the same effect on HIV and cancer sufferers. The transplants caused the virus to hold off for a number of months, but the remaining HIV cells managed to mutate again and begin attacking the immune system again. This shows that the genetic mutation either has to be implanted into HIV patients or somehow replicated in order to cure the virus.
Researchers have admitted that they are a long way away from creating a universal cure for HIV, but Castillejo’s recovery is a ray of hope, as he has proven that it is possible to be cured of this cruel disease.
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