Progress in HIV research garners minute publicity

Two and a half years ago, a baby was born in Mississippi with HIV. The baby, who received the virus from her mother, is now HIV-free according to blood tests. How did this happen? 30 hours after birth, the baby was given three high doses of antiretroviral drugs at the University of Mississippi Medical Center and remained on the drugs for a total of 15 months. A CNN report states that now, the child is no longer on antiretroviral drugs and is the first child to be “functionally cured” of HIV. A “functional cure” is when the presence of the virus is so small, lifelong treatment is not necessary and standard clinical tests cannot detect the virus in the blood. (CNN, “Mississippi toddler still HIV free”, 10/24/13)

So what exactly does this mean for the future? Does this mean we have found the cure for HIV? Some researchers are saying yes. According to the same CNN article, Dr. Deborah Persaud, a virologist who works at Johns Hopkin’s Children Center, believes that the early treatment of the baby was the cause of the cure and believes it can be replicated with other patients. Dr. Hannah Gay, a pediatric specialist at the University of Mississippi Medical Center who worked with the child agrees, saying, “We are hoping that future studies will show that very early institution of effective therapy will result in this same outcome consistently.”

However, others are not as convinced. In a report by ABC news, Dr. Mark Kline, a pediatric HIV and AIDS specialist at the Baylor College of Medicine in Houston, scolds the term functional cure. It appears as though he (and ABC news) believes the term “remission” is more appropriate, for the virus could still return and cause and infection. (ABC News, “Doctors No Longer Say HIV Baby ‘Cured’”, 10/24/13) Kline is also concerned with the drugs given to the child due to their potentially toxic effects.

He pointed out that “these drugs carry the risk of liver inflammation, allergic reactions, and bone marrow suppression, which can predispose the patient to other infections,” The hard part about administering the drug is deciding if the side effects are worse than having HIV itself, and that’s a tough call to make when one has no idea how these drugs could affect an infant in their later life.

Kline and many others, such as Dr. Myron Cohen, Director of the Institute for Global Health and Infectious Diseases at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, just want the world to be cautious of these results. They believe these results may be projecting a sense of false hope. Kline makes this clear when he explained that it possible that the child was one of a handful of patients who were born with HIV and somehow able to control the virus on their own.

So can we really say that a cure has been found for HIV? Not quite yet. But it is promising to know that studies are constantly being conducted to try and find this cure and that we are making some progress.

A real question I have though is about why nobody at Vassar is talking about this. I mean I asked a few people if they had heard about this case and a few people said, “oh yeah, I saw a headline for it somewhere but I didn’t, like, read it,” while others looked at me with a blank stare like I was a crazy person and had no idea what I was talking about. Maybe one  of the reasons that many people at Vassar have no idea is because of how this progress is still not a cure that works for everyone, and therefore is something we can’t really call a cure. It seems since a total cure is still not in sight, we’re not keeping our eyes out on the research.

For example, in 2012, two men who had HIV and cancer received a combination of treatments that resulted in them being HIV-free. Strangely even I don’t remember reading about this in the headlines. Has society become so overcome with only absolutes in science (particularly medicine) that we ignore anything that might signal progress unless it is the potential for an outright cure? Or, in reality, is this progress really not even worth discussing? To each their own, I suppose.

At the end of the day, a baby in Mississippi who had HIV is now HIV-fee and is not currently on antiretroviral drugs. To me, that’s at least worth mentioning.

 

—Delaney Fischer ’15 is a neuroscience major.

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