Woman’s Own Immune System Has Possibly Cured Her of HIV
A 30-year-old HIV-positive mother, diagnosed in 2013, from the Argentinian town of Esperanza has given birth to an HIV-negative baby. Upon doing exhaustive testing on her, researchers found she was HIV negative. They found no evidence of viable HIV in the billions of cells they examined.
Known as the Esperanza patient, she may be the second documented person who appears to have naturally healed herself with her own immune system. The first woman was a patient from California. These observations, recently published in the Annals of Internal Medicine, raise the possibility that a cure may be an extremely rare but possible outcome of HIV infection. (1)
It is interesting that the word “esperanza” means hope in English. These findings may bring hope to the estimated 38 million people globally living with the virus and to the vast research being done to find a cure for HIV.
What Is HIV?
HIV stands for human immunodeficiency virus. It attacks the body’s immune system. If HIV is not treated, it can lead to AIDS, also known as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. At this stage, the immune system has become so weak it is difficult for the body to defend itself against other diseases.
There is currently no effective cure. Although this virus was first discovered in Africa in the 1920s, scientists now know that it has existed in the United States since the mid-1970s. According to the World Health Organization, over 36 million people have died worldwide from HIV so far.
How Does HIV Work?
HIV infects a type of white blood cell in the body’s immune system called a T-helper cell. These cells keep us healthy by fighting off infections and diseases. HIV cannot reproduce on its own. Instead, the virus attaches itself to a T-helper cell and fuses with it to replicate itself. This cell dies leading to a steady decline of T-helper cells thus weakening the immune system response to other pathogens which may invade the body. (2)
Virologists theorize that the two women mentioned above may have had a particularly potent killer T-cell response to the virus eventually eliminating any presence of HIV.
There are many documented cases of people who have stopped antiretroviral treatment, especially if they started therapy soon after contracting the virus, who have not seen their viral load increase for years. (3)
The Future For HIV
HIV has proven to be extremely difficult to eradicate from the body because it infects certain long-lived immune cells. These infected cells create a viral reservoir, where they can spend long periods in a resting state. These reservoirs of inactive cells cannot be detected by today’s standard antiretroviral treatment. Only when the infected cells become active giving rise to new viable copies of the virus can they be detected. (4)
Scientists continue to pursue several approaches to finding the cure for HIV including gene therapy and stem cell transplants. Research is also looking at therapeutic vaccines that could enhance the body’s immune response to the virus.