According to researchers, a baby has been ‘functionally cured’ of HIV, marking a potentially world-changing development in modern medicine
A baby girl appears to have been cured of HIV after receiving an unusually aggressive course of medication within hours of her birth. If the report is confirmed, the child would be the first person to be cured of HIV using a drug treatment, with dramatic implications for the treatment of babies born with the virus.
Doctors stumbled upon the potentially groundbreaking treatment almost by accident, when a woman with no regular doctor arrived at a rural medical centre in Mississippi, US, to give birth. Routine testing revealed that the woman was HIV positive, but it was too late for the standard countermeasures used to prevent mother-to-child transmission of the virus.
Instead, doctors delivered the baby and quickly launched a three-drug regimen typically used to treat more fully established HIV infections.
The child’s viral load dropped in much the same way seen in adults undergoing antiretroviral treatment, but when the child’s mother subsequently withdrew her child from treatment for several months, doctors were stunned to find that her viral load remained below detectable levels.
“That’s really unheard of. If people go off therapy, most of them rebound … within a few weeks,” Dr Deborah Persaud, an AIDS researcher at Johns Hopkins Children’s Centre in Baltimore, told the Wall Street Journal.
Even after a full year without medication, the child, now two and a half years old, remains “functionally cured,” say doctors – traces of the virus are still present but they are ‘inactive’. It is thought the early aggressive treatment kept the HIV virus from establishing ‘viral reservoirs’ — the intracellular beachheads from which HIV can ordinarily recolonise in a patient’s body, even after being almost wiped out by antiretroviral drugs.
The explanation offers little hope for HIV patients in whom the virus has already taken root, however a group of researchers in France have since predicted that similar treatment could “functionally cure” one in ten quickly diagnosed patients. It also has the potential to allow doctors to more effectively treat the 330,000 babies born with HIV each year.
Still, experts warn not to expect an immediate impact. In the developed world, widespread testing and effective prophylactic techniques have already almost eliminated mother-to-child HIV transmission, but in the developing world, where infection rates are far higher, it might prove difficult to secure neonatal access to expensive HIV drugs.
For now though, doctors in Mississippi are celebrating. Speaking to the Guardian, Dr Hannah Gay of the University of Mississippi Medical Centre, said: “We expect that this baby has great chances for a long, healthy life. We are certainly hoping that this approach could lead to the same outcome in many other high-risk babies.”