Researchers announce that a 53-year-old man in Germany has been cured of HIV.
Referred to as “the Dusseldorf patient” to protect his privacy, researchers said it was the fifth confirmed case of an HIV cure. Although details of his successful treatment were first announced at a conference in 2019, researchers could not confirm that he had been officially cured at that time.
Today, researchers announced that the Dusseldorf patient still had no detectable virus in his body, even after stopping his HIV medication four years ago.
“It really is a cure, and not just, you know, long-term remission,” said Dr. Bjorn-Erik Ole Jensen, who presented the details of the case in a new post in “Nature Medicine.” .
“This obviously positive symbol gives hope, but there’s a lot of work to be done,” Jensen said.
For most people, HIV is a lifelong infection and the virus is never completely eradicated. Thanks to modern medicines, people living with HIV can live long and healthy lives.
The Düsseldorf patient joins a small group of people who have been cured in dire circumstances after stem cell transplants, usually performed only in cancer patients who have no other options. A stem cell transplant is a high-risk procedure that effectively replaces a person’s immune system. The main goal is to cure a person’s cancer, but the procedure has also cured HIV in a few cases.
HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, penetrates and destroys cells of the immune system. Without treatment, continued damage can lead to AIDS or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, where a person cannot fight off even a small infection.
With an estimated 38.4 million people living with HIV worldwide, treatments have come a long way. Modern drugs can keep the virus at bay, and studies to prevent HIV infection with a vaccine are also underway.
The first person cured of HIV was Timothy Ray Brown. Researchers published his case as a patient from Berlin in 2009. This was followed by the patient from London published in 2019. More recently, patients from Hope City and New York have been published in 2022.
“I think we can get a lot of information from this patient and similar HIV recovery cases,” Jensen said. “This information gives us indications on where we could go to make the strategy safer.”
These four patients had undergone stem cell transplants for their blood cancer treatment. Their donors also had the same HIV-resistant mutation that suppresses a protein called CCR5, which HIV normally uses to enter the cell. Only 1% of the total population carries this genetic mutation which makes them resistant to HIV.
“When you hear about these cures for HIV, it’s obviously, you know, incredible, given how difficult it has been. But that is still the exception to the rule,” said Dr. Todd Ellerin, director of infectious diseases at South Shore Health.
Stem cell transplantation is a complicated procedure with many risks, and it is too risky to offer it as a cure to anyone living with HIV.
However, scientists are optimistic. Each time they treat a new patient, they gain valuable research knowledge that helps them understand what it would take to find a cure for everyone.
“It’s obviously a step forward in advancing the science and making us understand, in some ways, what it takes to cure HIV,” Ellerin said.
Kavia Sathyakumar, MD, MBA, is a family medicine resident at Ocala Regional Medical Center in Florida and a member of the ABC News Medical Unit.