The first ever "functional cure" of a child born with the AIDS virus, HIV, was announced this weekend in Atlanta, Ga., at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections. According to The Guardian, Doctors treating the child at the University of Mississippi announced Sunday, March 3, that a child born HIV-positive had tested negative for the virus after a year of not receiving treatment medication.
Although the patient's name or sex were not revealeded in order to protect the child's identity, doctors did acknowledge that the child was born, lived, and was treated in Mississippi. Dr. Hannah Gay, the doctor that treated the infant, said that the case was the first documented "functional cure" of a patient that had been born HIV-positive. A "functional cure" occurs when the patient's test are negative for the virus.
Amazingly enough, doctors aren't quite certain why the child is negative. However, they are hopeful that the treatment that the patient underwent at the University of Mississippi medical center was the key.
"Now, after at least one year of taking no medicine, this child's blood remains free of virus even on the most sensitive tests available," Gay told The Guardian. She added, "We expect that this baby has great chances for a long, healthy life. We are certainly hoping that this approach could lead to the same outcome in many other high-risk babies."
What Gay did differently in this particular case was to introduce three antiretroviral drugs into the baby's system beginning at 30 hours after the child was born. The usual method is the administration of one antiretroviral after birth, but Gay felt that since the mother had had no treatment prior to birth, a stronger dose might be helpful.
What surprised Gay and others was that within a month the HIV levels in the baby's blood had fallen below detectable levels. Acting on the side of prudence, the child was administered medicine for a year, but then appointments began to be missed and treatment attendance finally stopped altogether. The child hadn't been medicated from age 18 months on, so when she was brought in for testing at 23 months of age, the doctor expected the HIV to have returned and at high levels.
Incredulous, Gay employed a colleague, Katherine Luzuriaga, an immunologist at Massachusetts Medical School, to corroborate the findings with more sensitive equipment. She and another scientist, Deborah Persaud at Johns Hopkins Children's Centre in Baltimore, conducted tests and found HIV, but no viruses capable of multiplying.
So what do the doctors think happened? They believe that the potency and the quickness of treatment after birth worked to virtually eradicate the virus altogether. The drugs stopped replication of short-lived immune cells and also blocked the infection of CD4 white blood cells, which are longer-lived and harbor the virus long after regular immune cells die off.
For that very reason, the treatment would not work on older children, teens, and adults due to the virus already inhabiting the CD4 cells.
Could this be the biggest breakthrough in AIDS research since Dr. David Ho's championing of a cocktail of antiretroviral drugs as treatment for AIDS patients, a treatment that helped control replication of the virus? Perhaps. But thus far it is only one case. And doctors aren't quite certain about the factors that precipitated the cure of this sole child.
Of course, the doctors urge caution among those with AIDS and that are HIV-positive, stating that, although the news is good, it is not reason enough to stop taking HIV medication. It is by no means a time-tested cure for the disease.
AIDS was first identified in the early 1980s and has, according to a 2011 Political Declaration on HIV/AIDS from the United Nations, claimed the lives of over 30 million people worldwide.
According to Avert.org, the estimated number of HIV/AIDS cases worldwide in 2010 (the last year of record) was 34 million. Of those, half are women, all capable of passing along the virus to as yet unborn children.
Of the 34 million, 3.4 million -- a full 10 percent -- of those living with the virus were children.