A baby who was "functionally cured" of HIV may have some adult company. Fourteen adults have also been "functionally cured" after they were given combination antiretroviral therapy (cART) for their HIV infection.
They have been able to stop taking the treatment while still keeping their infection under control, according to a new study in the journal PLOS Pathogens. "Our results show that early and prolonged cART may allow some individuals with a rather unfavorable background to achieve long-term infection control and may have important implications in the search for a functional HIV cure," the researchers, from the Institut Pasteur in Paris, wrote in the study.
MedPageToday pointed out that while the 14 adults still technically have HIV in their bodies, it's only barely detectable when using highly sensitive laboratory methods. Therefore, they are considered "functionally cured" instead of being completely rid of the virus. The New Scientist reported that there were 70 people in the study, all of whom had been treated incredibly early for their HIV infection (anywhere between 5 and 10 weeks of being infected), but whose drug regimens had been interrupted for some reason: Most of the 70 people relapsed when their treatment was interrupted, with the virus rebounding rapidly to pre-treatment levels.
But 14 of them -- four women and 10 men -- were able to stay off of ARVs without relapsing, having taken the drugs for an average of three years. The findings suggest that anywhere from 5 to 15 percent of people are able to be "functionally cured" of HIV, the study researcher, Dr. Asier Saez-Cirion, told BBC News. "They still have HIV, it is not eradication of HIV, it is a kind of remission of the infection," Saez-Cirion told BBC News.
However, it still remains to be seen whether the virus will be controlled sans drugs forever. Dr. Michael Saag, of the University of Alabama Birmingham, told MedPageToday that he would not recommend people with HIV stop taking treatment, since stopping can actually spur replication of HIV. The adults in the study have been off antiretroviral medication for an average of seven years, and one person has even been off the medication for 10.5 years, the New Scientist reported. A person with HIV must take antiretroviral drugs every day for the rest of his or her life, according to AVERT.
A recent study in the journal AIDS showed that people who are able to well-control their HIV through these drugs have no higher risk of dying than people without HIV. In the case of the baby who was declared "functionally cured" of HIV, doctors gave the baby -- who is now 2 1/2 years old -- strong HIV drugs within 30 hours of being born, the Associated Press reported. She was born to a mother who didn't realize she had HIV until she came into the hospital during labor.
The HIV treatment was given to the baby before she was confirmed infected with HIV, but the doctor who treated her -- Dr. Hannah Gay, of the University of Mississippi -- told the Associated Press that she "just felt like this baby was at higher-than-normal risk, and deserved our best shot." However, Dr. Mark Siedner, a postdoctoral fellow in the division of infectious diseases at Massachusetts General Hospital and Harvard Medical School, wrote an opinion piece in the Wall Street Journal, where he pointed out that questions still remain as to whether the child was infected with HIV upon birth, or merely exposed.
He wrote: In the case of the Mississippi baby, we know she was exposed to HIV, had HIV in her blood, and that at least some cells in her blood were found with sleeping virus -- though we will likely never know if those cells were from the child or maternal cells that had been transmitted during pregnancy or birth. Was the baby infected with HIV and, thus, cured?
To many of the researchers at the conference, the answer is "no." It seems more likely that her treatment prevented her, after exposure to HIV, from being infected. Before the Mississippi baby, there was another man thought to be "cured" of HIV -- Timothy Ray Brown, who is known as the "Berlin patient." Brown was "cured" when he was given bone marrow stell cell transplants for leukemia that wasn't related to his HIV infection.
But those stem cells he received came from a person with HIV-resistant cells -- and after he received the transplant, his virus never came back and he was able to stop taking antiretroviral medication.