It’s a potential game changer in the fight against HIV, and doctors say it happened almost by accident.
A baby with the virus that causes AIDS was given high doses of three antiretroviral drugs within 30 hours of her birth. Doctors knew the mother was HIV positive and administered the drugs in hopes of controlling the virus.
Two years later, there is no evidence of HIV in the child’s blood.
The Mississippi girl is the first child to be “functionally cured” of HIV, researchers announced Sunday. They said they believe early intervention with the antiretroviral drugs was key to the outcome.
A “functional cure” is when the presence of the virus is so small, lifelong treatment is not necessary and standard clinical tests cannot detect the virus in the blood.
The finding was announced at the 2013 Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Atlanta.
The unidentified girl was born HIV positive to a mother who received no prenatal care and was not diagnosed as HIV positive herself until just before delivery.
“We didn’t have the opportunity to treat the mom during the pregnancy as we would like to be able do to prevent transmission to the baby,” said Dr. Hannah Gay, a pediatric HIV specialist at the University of Mississippi Medical Center.
Gay told CNN the timing of intervention — before the baby’s HIV diagnosis — may deserve “more emphasis than the particular drugs or number of drugs used.”
“We are hoping that future studies will show that very early institution of effective therapy will result in this same outcome consistently,” she said on the eve of the Atlanta conference.
Researchers say the only other documented case of an HIV cure is that of Timothy Brown, known as the “Berlin patient.” In 2007, Brown, an HIV-positive American living in Germany, was battling both leukemia and HIV when he underwent a bone marrow transplant that cured not only his cancer but his HIV.
In an interview last year, Brown told Dr. Sanjay Gupta, CNN’s chief medical correspondent, he was still HIV-free.
“I’ve been tested everywhere possible,” said Brown, who now lives in San Francisco. “My blood’s been tested by many, many agencies. I’ve had two colonoscopies to test to see if they could find HIV in my colon, and they haven’t been able to find any.”
But Brown’s case is rare.
And the procedure, which is extremely dangerous, won’t work in most patients because the bone marrow he received had a special genetic mutation that made the stem cells in it naturally resistant to the virus.
Researchers tell CNN only 1% of Caucasians — mostly Northern Europeans — and no African-Americans or Asians have this particular mutation.
In June, five years after he was “cured,” reports surfaced that “traces” of the virus had been found in Brown’s blood.
Even then, some HIV experts said that doesn’t matter, that he’s been cured. In fact, many AIDS experts said they believe Brown has experienced what’s called a “sterilizing” cure, meaning the virus has been eliminated from the body entirely.
Routine clinical testing on the Mississippi toddler continues, Gay said.
So far, there is no evidence of the virus.
“On the ultra-sensitive testing, we are occasionally getting signals so we cannot say with certainty that this child is absolutely clear of HIV, but we will continue to follow up with the baby,” Luzuriaga said.
“We have formed a hypothesis and that is already driving the design of new studies and clinical trials that will help us to answer the question of whether by coming in very early we will be able to treat children for a while and then remove them from therapy.”
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