A sixth person has been declared ‘effectively cured’ of HIV – another milestone in the fight against the disease.
The Swiss man in his 50s – dubbed ‘The Geneva Patient’ – has been HIV-free since receiving high-risk therapy in 2018. Repeated post-therapy tests revealed no HIV in the patient’s bloodstream, leading doctors to halt the patient’s drug regimen in November 2021, suggesting he is experiencing long-term remission.
Doctors like to wait five years from the time they stop taking HIV medication before officially declaring a patient cured.
But if enough time passes with no levels of detectable virus, he would join the thin club of only five people who are considered to be definitively or possibly cured of HIV.
All six people had HIV when they received bone marrow transplants, but unlike the five other cases, the Geneva patient’s donor did not have a rare genetic mutation called CCR5 delta 32, which prevents HIV from entering a person’s immune system and is known to make cells naturally resistant to HIV.
A bone marrow transplant infuses healthy blood-forming stem cells, which are human cells with the ability to develop into different cell types, into a person’s body to replace bone marrow that isn’t producing enough healthy cells.
The individual had been living with HIV, an infection that targets the white blood cells and attacks the body’s immune system, making it easier to get sick with serious illnesses since the early 1990s, and was receiving antiretroviral therapy.
This therapy for HIV, known as ART, involves taking a combination of HIV medications every day.
In 2018, the person received chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant as part of a regimen to treat his leukemia. This procedure puts healthy blood-forming stem cells, human cells with the ability to develop into a variety of cell types, into a person’s body to replace the bone marrow that isn’t producing enough healthy cells.
Bone marrow is a spongy material in bones where the body makes and stores blood cells. When cells mature, they travel out of the bone marrow and into the bloodstream.
This transplant, also called a stem cell transplant, can be performed in people with certain types of cancer or immune deficiencies.
The procedure carries numerous risks, including organ damage, infections, infertility, and cataracts.
After the patient’s transplant, it was discovered that his blood cells had been completely replaced by the donor’s blood cells and his HIV-infected cells had dropped significantly, the Institut Pasteur said.
“What happened to me is beautiful and magical — we can now focus on the future,” the patient said in a statement from the Institut Pasteur.
The Geneva patient is the sixth HIV patient to be considered “effectively cured” of the disease, with the other five in California, New York, Berlin, London and Dusseldorf.
While there is no universal cure for HIV, eight medications are currently approved by the Food and Drug Administration for use in ART. According to the Pan American Health Organization, the drugs are used in combination to increase potency and reduce the chance of the virus becoming resistant to therapies.
According to the World Health Organization, by the end of 2022, 39 million people were living with HIV and 630,000 people had died from the disease.
HIV is transmitted through bodily fluids of an infected person, including blood, breast milk, semen, and vaginal fluids. It can also be transmitted through pregnancy and sex.
If left untreated, the virus can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS.
While doctors say the therapeutic method used for The Geneva Patient “is not widely applicable due to its aggressiveness,” the case offers “unexpected insights.”
“With this unique situation, we are exploring new avenues in the hope that one day remission or even a cure for HIV will no longer be a one-off event,” said Dr. Alexandra Calmy, the director of the HIV/AIDS unit at Geneva University Hospitals.