A HIV/AIDS diagnosis was once considered a death sentence but in recent years the illness has been reduced to a chronic condition that can be managed by antiretroviral drugs – medications that prevent the virus particles from replicating within the human body. Still, the use of these drugs is by no means a cure for the disease and the incidence of the disease is on the rise – even here in Northern Ireland – which provides little hope to the 34 million people globally whom already suffer with the condition.
That may have changed this past Sunday as Doctors from the Medical schools of Mississippi and Massachusetts announced the first documented case of a “functional cure” for HIV in an infant born with the disease.
HIV, first observed and isolated in the 1980s, stands for Human Immunodeficiency Virus and is believed to be an evolution of the Simian immunodeficiency virus that infects chimpanzees. The virus uses enzymes to change human DNA by inserting a copy of its own DNA blueprint into the infected cell, causing the cells to act as a veritable virus factory – unwittingly producing copies of the viral particles. HIV infects vital cells within the immune system and drastically reduces the ability of the body to cope with everyday infections. This can eventually lead to the condition known as AIDS – Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome. In AIDS, there can be very few signs of infection after initial flu-like symptoms that emerge around the time of the disease’s development. After this period, when levels of protective “T-Cells” are depleted within the body, the infected becomes incredibly vulnerable to opportunist infections – everyday infections that a healthy immune system can deal with effortlessly – and certain types of cancer.
HIV is transmitted through the exchange of bodily fluids between adults but the risk of a mother transmitting the infection to her child during pregnancy, birth or breast-feeding ranges from 15% to 45%. This is reduced to 2% with treatment.
However, for a Mississippi woman during her pregnancy 3 years ago, treatment wasn’t even considered, as her HIV status remained undiscovered. A rapid HIV test after the birth confirmed that the mother had the infection and she was transported to Mississippi Medical Centre where Dr. Hannah Gay did not wait for confirmation before starting the infant on high-dose antiretroviral treatment. It was then confirmed that the child did have the infection and she was placed on continued treatment.
After 18 months, for unknown reasons, the mother decided to stop bringing the baby for treatment. When she realised, Dr. Gay contacted child-protection workers to find the child and take her in for treatment. The child didn’t receive therapy for 5 months but, upon testing, showed no signs of the virus. After all results had been doubled checked and more sophisticated testing had been performed, the trace amount of the virus meant that the child had effectively been cured of HIV infection.
Hannah Gay has since partnered with Dr. Persaud of the University of Massachusetts to further study the effects of early retroviral treatment in HIV-positive infants. They will publish their findings later this year, although the preliminary results are very positive.