Scientists hoping to cure HIV have proven that an immunotherapy drug is safe to use in humans.
The phase 1 trial is an early but significant milestone for the team at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, which won a $20 million grant to make their ideas a reality.
In the last couple of years immunotherapy, which trains a person’s immune system to attack a disease, became mainstream, and is now being used to treat scores of conditions, from cancer to blindness.
However, scientists are treading lightly when it comes to HIV, because attempts in the last 20 years to cure the virus with bone marrow transplants (another mainstream treatment which replaces a person’s immune system with that of a donor) have proved fatal in all but one person.
For the first time, in a study published today by the journal Cell Reports, the North Carolina team has confirmed their hopes: that immunotherapy could be administered to HIV positive patients without a realistic risk of death – and many are tipping it as proof that this could be it.
‘We think that we will be able to replicate the results of the Berlin patient [the only person ever cured of HIV], but that will take a while, on a step-by-step trajectory,’ Dr David Margolis, co-senior author of the new paper.
THE ONLY CURE THAT EVER WORKED – AND WHY IT NEVER WORKED AGAIN
The only person ever cured of HIV is an American man called Timothy Brown, widely known as ‘the Berlin patient’ because he was cured in Berlin in 2007.
Brown already had HIV when he was diagnosed with leukemia, a disease of the bone marrow which can be treated with a bone marrow transplant.
Bone marrow transplants are usually the last resort because there is a significant risk of death, by triggering a war between the person’s original immune system and the new implanted one.
But Brown didn’t have many other options. Once he agreed, his doctor suggested trying to select a donor who had genes known to be resistant to HIV. At the time it was more of an attempt to protect him, rather than cure him.
Not only did Brown survive the operation, and survive free of leukemia, he also had no trace of the human immunodeficiency virus.
The news rocked the medical community, with speculation that this could be the end of HIV/AIDS.
However, attempts to replicate it were devastating.
A report published by the New England Journal of Medicine in 2014 described six attempts to treat HIV patients with a stem cell donation, but none lived longer than a year.