Two HIV-positive cancer patients who were taking antiretroviral drugs at the same time as they were undergoing bone marrow stem cell treatments appear to be free of the virus, researchers announced on Wednesday. Doctors hesitate to call the development a definitive “cure” and are unsure if it can be replicated in the tens of millions of people with HIV and AIDS — but it does add to existing evidence that aggressive drug treatment is critical to killing off the virus and potentially eradicating the disease, since HIV drugs appear to be both curative and preventative in nature.
The patients in question were receiving chemotherapy that killed off their cancer-ridden bone marrow while simultaneously continuing anti-HIV drug regimens. The men continued taking the drugs as they received bone marrow stem cell transplants to help them regrow healthy, cancer-free tissue — and have been HIV-free for over three years since, even after discontinuing their treatment several weeks ago. Researchers speculate that the cocktail of HIV drugs suppressed the virus enough that it was unable to transmit or replicate in the patients’ new, healthy bone marrow.
That suggests that early targeting of HIV doesn’t just kill individual infected cells, but can prevent its spread, too. In March, a two-and-a-half year old child born with HIV and 14 infected adults underwent aggressive rounds of initial HIV treatment to similar results as the cancer patients. The ten men and four women in the adult group haven’t had to take HIV drugs for between four and 10 years.
Furthermore, a major, first-of-its-kind study published in The Lancet in June found that drug addicts who took daily doses of HIV drugs were half as likely to get infected with the virus from sharing needles or unsafe sex practices as those who didn’t. “This provides the totality of the evidence that the drugs used to treat the infection are also very effective at preventing it,” said Dr. Salim S. Abdool Karim, one of the study’s authors.
Still, researchers warn not to take too much away from the successful cases. Turning individual, seemingly successful procedures such as the ones that the cancer patients underwent into a widespread cure will prove difficult, since painful and expensive bone marrow transplants aren’t necessarily a viable option for mass-marketing. But if the patients stay HIV-free without returning to daily doses of antiretroviral drugs, scientists believe that the fight against HIV and AIDS will take on a more targeted nature, and an actual “cure” could be on the horizon.