The second patient in the world to be ‘naturally’ cured of HIV without the help of drug or other treatments is speaking out about how grateful she is to be virus-free.
The 30-year-old woman, whom researchers call the ‘Esperanza Patient’ after the city where she lives in Argentina, has been studied by a team in Buenos Aires and at the Ragon Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT, and Harvard.
Researchers analyzed genetic material from over one billion cells in the patient’s body and saw no evidence of HIV.
They believe the woman is what is known as an ‘elite controller’ of the virus, a rare patient whose body is able to suppress the virus and shows no signs of infection.
‘I enjoy being healthy,’ she told NBC News in Spanish over email on the condition of anonymity.
‘I have a healthy family. I don’t have to medicate, and I live as though nothing has happened. This already is a privilege.’
Studies suggest that about 0.5 percent of HIV-infected people have uniquely strong immune responses to the virus, out of about 38 million currently living with this virus around the world.
If scientists can identify the secret behind these patients’ resistance to HIV, they may be able to leverage it into new treatments for the virus that are less onerous than patients’ current options.
Scientists have identified a second patient who appears to be completely cured of HIV through her own immune system, no treatments (File image)
In the U.S., HIV is most prevalent in several Southern states, parts of the Northeast, Nevada, and California, according to the CDC
While the COVID-19 pandemic has been the top global public health crisis for the past two years, HIV/AIDS also continues to impact millions around the world.
HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus attacks the body’s immune system and, if not treated, it can lead to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS).
According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), an estimated 1.2 million people were living with HIV in the U.S. at the end of 2019.
That year, about 37,000 Americans were newly diagnosed with HIV. The virus disproportionately impacts black and Latino Americans along with the LGBTQ+ community.
Worldwide, an estimated 38 million people are living with HIV – more than two-thirds of whom live in Africa.
HIV is a particularly challenging disease to treat because of the way this virus operates.
As a retrovirus, it carries single-stranded genetic material called RNA into human cells, then fuses with those cells and turns them into factories that produce more copies of HIV.
Currently, the best treatment option for HIV patients is a combination of medicines called antiretroviral therapy (or ART), which prevent the virus from further making copies of itself in the body.
While this treatment can help people with HIV live long, healthy lives, they are tied to a daily medical regimen – which can be challenging and costly to maintain.
As a result, scientists are studying patients whose immune systems seem to naturally resist HIV in order to identify options for new therapies.
Xu Yu, an immunologist at the Ragon Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT, and Harvard, leads the team that identified both cured patients
One research group with this focus is led by Xu Yu, an immunologist at the Ragon Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT, and Harvard.
Yu’s team has now identified two patients who appear to be completely cured of the virus, with no HIV viral sequences in their bodies.
Scientists call this a ‘sterilizing cure’ – both patients were ‘sterilized’ from HIV without the help of any drugs or bone marrow transplants.
The first cured patient was reported in a paper published in Nature in 2020.
Yu’s team sequenced more than one billion cells from this patient, called the ‘San Francisco Patient,’ and did not find any HIV present.
The second cured patient was reported Monday in a paper published in the journal Annals of Internal Medicine.
Like the ‘San Francisco Patient,’ Yu’s team sequenced 1.19 billion blood cells and 500 million tissue cells from this patient – and found no evidence of HIV.
This second patient, called the ‘Esperanza Patient,’ lives in Esperanza, Argentina and was diagnosed with HIV in 2013.
Yu’s team has worked with scientists in Buenos Aires to sequence genomic material from this patient since 2017, according to STAT News.
‘These findings, especially with the identification of a second case, indicate there may be an actionable path to a sterilizing cure for people who are not able to do this on their own,’ Yu said in a statement.
According to Yu, the two patients may have a unique capacity within their killer T cells, a group of immune system cells that identify and destroy cancer cells and other damaged cells.
If killer T cells neutralize enough cells infected with HIV, they can stop the virus from replicating further – thus preventing patients from getting sick.
Scientists call HIV patients with this capacity ‘elite controllers.’ Many of these patients don’t show symptoms of the virus, and have very small levels of HIV in their bodies.
Studies estimate that about 0.5 percent of people living with HIV around the world are elite controllers.
Gay and bisexual men, along with black and Latino Americans, are disproportionately vulnerable to HIV infection in the U.S.
‘We are now looking toward the possibility of inducing this kind of immunity in persons on ART through vaccination, with the goal of educating their immune systems to be able to control the virus without ART,’ Yu said.
Two patients have previously been cured of HIV through treatment. One man, the ‘Berlin Patient,’ was cured with the help of chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant in 2008.
A second man, the ‘London Patient,’ was cured in 2019 – similarly with a bone marrow transplant.
Studying the ‘Esperanza Patient,’ the ‘San Francisco Patient,’ and other elite controllers will lead scientists to a better understanding of how HIV lurks in the body over long periods of time – and what leads some people’s immune systems to neutralize that virus.
In the Esperanza Patient’s case, scientists who spoke to STAT News are particularly interested in learning more about what happened in her immune system when she was initially infected.
Scientists hope to develop a vaccine or treatment that can cure HIV, rather than having patients rely on a daily medical treatment for the rest of their lives.
‘Just thinking that my condition might help achieve a cure for this virus makes me feel a great responsibility and commitment to make this a reality,’ the ‘Esperanza Patient’ wrote in an email to STAT News.
‘Esperanza’ is a fitting title, the patient’s doctor said, because it translates literally to ‘hope.’
The patient has given birth to one child who is HIV-negative, and is now expecting a second child.