Have We Cured AIDS?

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Earlier this week it was announced that an HIV-positive man was believed to be cured of the deadly virus following a stem cell transplant. The results of the man's treatment, published by his doctors in the journal Blood, suggested that the long-awaited HIV cure had finally been "achieved."

Just a few days after this news was revealed, Maggie Koerth-Baker at BoingBoing is surprised at how little coverage the supposed cure has received. "If a miracle happened, why isn't it more obvious?" she asks. Some research clarifies that the patient, Timothy Ray Brown, who was HIV positive, also had leukemia for which he was treated in 2007 with chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant. The bone marrow came from a donor who "possessed a rare genetic mutation that makes a very small percentage of humans resistant to HIV infection," which Brown then adopted. The success was publicized at the time, making the recent report more of a follow-up confirming that Brown continues to stave off the virus.

Another caveat to the cure news is that undergoing potentially fatal chemotherapy and bone marrow transplants aren't exactly viable risks for regular AIDS patients to take, whereas Brown, on the other hand, already had leukemia. David Cohen at New Scientist explains how specific the cure is to Brown:

For the transplant to succeed, the bone marrow had to be specifically matched to Brown so that his immune system would not reject them. He was lucky that a match was found. Furthemore, as Michael Saag, director of the University of Alabama at Birmingham AIDS Center, told CNN, Brown had to have his own immune system practically wiped out to avoid a rejection of the transplant, a risky procedure in itself.

Koerth-Baker relates that "for people who are successfully managing HIV with anti-retroviral drugs, this is sort of like saying, 'We have a way to prevent you from ever dying in a car accident. But first, we have to drop you off of the top of this three-story building.' It's not really worth it."

So while the fact that Brown's doctors were able to rid him of HIV is profoundly exciting, Koerth-Baker concludes, the details of the case show we can't quite claim to have a cure for the 33 million suffering from AIDS worldwide.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.