The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) describes human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) as a virus that attacks the body’s immune system. Without treatment, HIV can cause acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS). While there is currently no effective cure for HIV, scientists recently made a groundbreaking discovery: some rare patients, known as “elite controllers,” may be able to effectively cure themselves of HIV infections. This discovery is astonishing because it would mark the first instance of a spontaneous HIV cure.
A Big Win for the Human Immune System
Science News reported on the study, which was initially published in Nature in August of 2020. The study centered on two patients, both of whom provided about 1.5 billion blood cells each for close inspection. Cells taken from one of the specified patients showed no functional HIV copies. The person still had some nonfunctional copies of the virus; however, these nonfunctional copies aren’t a threat to the body. The second study participant had just one functional copy of HIV in more than 1 billion blood cells analyzed. That single copy of HIV was stuck in what Science News describes as essentially “a genetic supermax prison.” In conclusion, both patients cleared functional HIV copies without long-term antiretroviral drug therapy. That marks a crucial first-time medical discovery. It may also point to a beacon of hope for other HIV patients. Although the study recruitment measures are not identified in the study abstract, one could conclude that these patients, known as “elite controllers,” are identified by their physicians after failing to develop symptoms in the post-diagnosis period.
As scientists continue to parse the results of this study, they will closely evaluate the aforementioned elite controllers. Science News reports that individuals known as elite controllers “are able to maintain very low or undetectable levels of HIV without antiretroviral drugs.” To clarify, this phenomenon does not take place after long-term retroviral therapy; not only do elite controllers maintain low levels of HIV, but they also remaincompletely free of symptoms and rarely show clear signs of internal damage from the virus after diagnosis. According to Science News, these patients make up approximately 0.05 percent of the world’s 35 million people infected with the virus. And while some elite controllers may have genetic variants in key immune system genes, as explained by Joseph Wong, a virologist at the University of California, San Francisco, not all elite controllers exhibit these variants, so the race is on to try to determine what makes these individuals so successful at controlling the HIV virus.
The study’s findings suggest that some people’s immune systems can essentially eliminate the HIV virus without antiretroviral therapy. This discovery may have far-reaching implications and could give researchers a solid foundation for future research. For example, it may pave the way for medical experts to recreate the conditions that annihilate the virus. While this news is promising, it’s just the beginning. Going forward, researchers will continue to explore how several individual immune systems managed to control HIV without external support.
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