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Did This Woman's Immune System Vanquish HIV?

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Monday November 22, 2021
Originally published on November 18, 2021

Researchers believe a 30-year-old Argentinian woman's own immune system may have prevailed over HIV, and suggest she might now be free of the virus —only the second time this has been thought to happen, NBC News reported.

The woman prefers not to have her identity disclosed, due to the stigma of HIV, the article said. But she offered comments to the news outlet via an email, saying, "I have a healthy family. I don't have to medicate, and I live as though nothing has happened. This already is a privilege."

Researchers published a case study on the woman, which appeared Nov. 15 in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.

"The case serves as one of two proofs of concept that a so-called sterilizing cure of the virus is apparently possible through natural immunity," the article said.

The hope is that if the woman's own immune system did vanquish the virus, it could yield clues in the search for an effective vaccine, or even a cure.

"How does this happen?" asked University of California, San Francisco researcher Dr. Steven Deeks, NBC detailed. "And how can we recapitulate this therapeutically in everybody?"

The virus has so far resisted attempts made over the course of four decades to find a vaccine or a cure. NBC took note of the therapeutic avenues researchers are currently pursuing, including " 'kick and kill' efforts to flush the virus from its so-called reservoir or 'block and lock' methods to keep it trapped in cells," as well as "gene therapy" and "therapeutic vaccines that would enhance the body's immune response to the virus."

NBC News noted that relatively few people are know to be "elite controllers" of HIV. "These are among the estimated 1 in 200 people with HIV whose own immune systems are somehow able to suppress the virus's replication to very low levels without antiretrovirals," NBC News detailed.

A tantalizing possibility of future therapeutic avenues reached the headlines last month when two National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) researchers — one of them Dr. Anthony Fauci — published he results of research that "has identified two distinct ways that people with HIV can control the virus for an extended period after stopping antiretroviral therapy (ART) under medical supervision," a National Institutes of Health news release detailed.

"This information could inform efforts to develop new tools to help people with HIV put the virus into remission without taking lifelong medication, which can have long-term side-effects," the release noted.

One of the keys, that research suggested, is swift diagnosis when a person contracts the virus, and then getting them on an effective treatment regimen to suppress replication of the virus in their cells. An effective treatment regimen that lowers a person's viral load to undetectable levels has the benefit of making it impossible for that person to transmit the virus to others.

Fact-based education, testing, and timely treatment are all, therefore, of great strategic value in the battle against HIV/AIDS.

Meantime, the search for a widely-applicable cure or vaccine continues.

"To date, researchers have successfully cured two other people therapeutically," NBC recalled, "in both cases through complex and dangerous stem cell transplants."

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.