This past summer, doctors were encouraged by news that two HIV-positive men who had received aggressive anti-HIV drug therapy while undergoing bone marrow stem cell transplants were apparently free of the virus despite discontinuing their medications. But now, Boston researchers have revealed that HIV is rebounding in both patients — a blow to many who had hoped that their cases might provide clues to a possible cure.
“We felt it would be scientifically unfair to not let people know how things are going, especially for potential patients,” said lead case researcher Dr. Timothy Henrich. Both men have returned to taking medications to keep the virus in check.
Three years ago, the two men were receiving chemotherapy that killed off their cancer-ridden bone marrow while also continuing a drug regimen to fight their HIV. They continued taking the powerful drugs even while receiving bone marrow stem cell transplants to replace their cancerous cells with healthy tissue. Remarkably, the men showed no signs of HIV after the transplant — even after they stopped taking medication for the virus in the summer. That led researchers to speculate that aggressive applications of the HIV drugs weakened the virus to the point that it could no longer transmit or replicate in the patients’ new, healthy bone marrow.
Now that the virus has re-emerged in the patients, Henrich and his team say the it can burrow deep into human tissue.
“This suggests that we need to look deeper, or we need to be looking in other tissues . . . the liver, gut, and brain,” said Henrich. “These are all potential sources, but it’s very difficult to obtain tissue from these places so we don’t do that routinely.”
Still, scientists say that the methods outlined in the men’s cases — including replacing infected bone marrow and early, aggressive drug treatment of HIV — are among the most promising avenues for an eventual cure.
In October, doctors announced that a baby born with HIV that she contracted from her mother in utero showed no signs of the virus even though she’d stopped receiving medication over a year and a half ago. The baby’s doctors administered an unusually aggressive course of anti-HIV drugs to her almost immediately after birth in an effort prevent the virus from spreading further.