Third person cured of HIV while treated for cancer

Recent advancements COVID-19 vaccines support the fight against HIV

The third person in the world was cured of HIV on Feb. 15, 2022. This was a landmark case in the fight against HIV—she was the first woman and the first person from a diverse racial background to be cured of HIV, opening the door for treatment to a much wider range of patients. 


Previously, there have been two recorded cases of cured HIV so far. The first, known as the Berlin Patient, stayed virus-free until his passing in 2020 due to cancer. In 2019, another patient was reported to be cured of HIV, confirming the validity of the previous case.


Both of the prior patients received bone marrow transplants from donors who carried a special mutation, known as the CCR5 Delta 32 mutation. This special mutation disables the CCR5 receptors on the surface of white blood cells, which HIV latches onto like a key. 


This mutation is estimated to be most predominant in Northern Europe—and about 10% of people in Europe and the United States have inherited this gene. However, in order for it to be protective against HIV, it must be inherited by both parents. 


Even still, this protective agent has only been identified in about 20,000 bone marrow donors.


What makes this most recent case special, however, is that it was the first known cure not from a bone marrow transplant, but from umbilical cord blood. This technique means that transplants do not need to be matched as closely to the recipient as in the bone marrow technique, opening the door for a much more diverse pool of patients to be cured.


This kind of treatment isn’t available to just anyone with HIV, yet. These three patients were diagnosed with both HIV and cancer, and the treatments provided were designed to treat their leukemia, not strictly HIV.  


These instances are great case studies that could help advance potential cures for HIV using gene-editing CRISPR technologies, but these treatments as they have been conducted are far too dangerous for individuals who do not have leukemia. 


For otherwise healthy individuals who suffer from HIV, antiretroviral therapy is still the safest and most effective measurement against the virus. While not curing it entirely, when the proper medication is taken consistently, it brings virus replication under control so that it remains undetectable by lab tests. Peer-reviewed research has shown that patients who have undetectable amounts of the virus do not transmit it when sexually active.


Thanks to Moderna’s successful COVID-19 vaccine, which is an mRNA vaccine, human clinical trials have begun for an experimental HIV vaccine using the same type of immunization technology. 


Unlike traditional vaccines, which take the nucleus of a bacteria or virus, mRNA vaccines use a special type of molecule, known as a messenger RNA, which tells the immune system what kind of proteins it should make. Rather than placing a docile cell inside an immune system to identify and attack, this technique simply gives the immune system blueprints to be able to produce the right kind of weapons against a certain virus on its own. 


HIV is extremely stealthy, dodging attempts to create an effective vaccine—as it is quite adept at maneuvering around immune systems. However, because of the way mRNA vaccines work, they may be the key to giving immune systems the proper means to defend against a virus that has been highly elusive for decades. 


It is unclear when the results will be published, but since the trial was officially announced Jan. 28, 2022, we can expect it won’t happen overnight. 


In the meantime, those who are sexually active can take PrEP, or pre-exposure prophylaxis, to reduce the risk of HIV infection by 99%—so long as it is taken as prescribed.


While these advancements in HIV medicine are definitely something to look forward to for the health and safety of all individuals, we must be understanding of the stigma surrounding those diagnosed with HIV, and work just as hard to end the stigma surrounding it as we are against fighting the virus. 


HIV is no longer the death sentence it once was, and those with undetectable results are just as safe to partner with as those who are negative—leading a long, healthy life like any other individual.