What do reports of a HIV cure really mean?

In March 2019 a second man was reported as having cleared the HIV virus after receiving a stem cell donation. He is known as “the London patient”, following another man who was given similar treatment in Germany in 2007 which also cleared his HIV infection.

The London patient had been living with HIV since 2003, and was later diagnosed with a type of blood cancer. The treatment in 2016 was a stem cell transplant where the donor had a genetic mutation called ‘CCR5 delta 32’, which is resistant to HIV. Three years later, and more than 18-months after he stopped taking his HIV medication he is still HIV-free.

The transplant caused some side effects including “graft-versus-host” disease, where the donated immune cells attack the patients’ immune cells.

We don’t know if it’s just the CCR5 resistance or if the graft-versus-host side effect was as important, as both patients had this complication.

Stem cell transplantation is not a cost effective or safe treatment for all people living with HIV.  There is only a tiny proportion of people in the world who have the gene mutation so finding a donor match would be difficult. It’s hopeful that in the future HIV patients could be treated with gene therapy to change their CCR5 receptor.

Ian Howley, CEO of LGBTQ+ charity HERO, the parent org of GMFA said, “While we welcome this news. We advise people to be cautious. The process the person when though was extreme. It won’t work for everyone, but hopefully it will is lead scientists in the right direction. In the meantime we need to continue our call for better treatment and services.

“We already have effective treatment for people living with HIV, and if their viral load is undetectable, they can’t pass on the virus and will live a normal life expectancy. Combined with prevention methods like condoms, PrEP, PEP and regular testing while tackling HIV stigma and increasing knowledge of HIV and STIs is still our best bet in ending HIV.

For more info about HIV, visit https://www.gmfa.org.uk/Pages/Category/hiv-aids-and-safer-sex

For more info about PrEP, visit www.gmfa.org.uk/prep

For more info about PEP, visit www.gmfa.org.uk/pep

To find your nearest GUM clinic, visit www.gmfa.org.uk/clinics.