Amidst speculation that the HIV virus may be able to cure blood cancer, researchers in Boston unveiled a new twist Wednesday: bone marrow transplants they gave to HIV-positive patients—in hopes of treating their blood cancer—actually rid them of the HIV virus.
The two anonymous patients have been virus-free for just a couple of months, so doctors are hesitant about using the word "cure," preferring "remission." The hope is that they will take after ex-blood cancer patient and ex-HIV sufferer Timothy Ray Brown, who has been in "remission" from both diseases for five years following a battery of bone-marrow transplants.
Before we get too excited, this doesn't mean that these treatments are a viable cure for the HIV virus: for one, bone-marrow transplants are so risky—chances of death are about one in five—that they can only be performed on patients with final-stage terminal cancer. HIV-positive patients also respond well to drugs in the developed world, so subjecting them to the treatment is widely seen as an unnecessary risk.
What the findings do represent is a beacon of hope for people with a virus that has, for years, been thought of as incurable. Since the AIDS epidemic erupted in the eighties, its perception has evolved from a raging, fast-moving death knell, to a terminal disease that can be successfully held off for decades. This success is largely been due to research that has focused on treating the disease, since curing it has long been seen as impossible.
Recent findings in the HIV-AIDS field—including the case of a "gutted" (e.g. disease-free) virus apparently curing blood cancer, and the remission of Timothy Ray Brown—has spawned a new generation of researchers fighting for both treatment and cure. One hope is that cells might be genetically re-engineered and prove infection-resistant; another is that a gene mutation that makes HIV an impossibility (found in one percent of Northern Europeans) can be replicated.
In the meantime, we'll cross our fingers and re-watch this tear-jerking clip of a six-year-old girl being cured of cancer via the "gutted" virus.