A child who was born with HIV has been “functionally cured” of the virus for the last nine years. The South African child has been able to live for almost a decade without taking any medication for the disease, in what is only the third case of a child remaining in remission without detectable levels of the HIV virus for some time.
The child was first treated back in 2007, and as part of a trial was randomly assigned 40 weeks of antiretroviral drugs along with 143 other babies. Once the treatment was completed, the virus remained undetectable in the child's bloodstream and has remained so ever since. None of the other children showed the same results.
Reported at the International Aids Society conference in Paris, the case has been compared to that of the “Mississippi Baby”, who back in 2010 was treated for HIV infection from birth until she was 18 months old. After a year of no medication, the HIV virus was still undetectable. By 2014, unfortunately, tests revealed that the virus had re-emerged.
Researchers were disappointed that the “cure” did not last in the Mississippi Baby, so this time around they are urging significant caution. They are not suggesting that the child is fully cured, and have actually been able to detect the virus in a tiny reservoir within some cells of the immune system. But because the child is not showing any symptoms of infection with HIV, it seems the child may instead be “functionally cured".
“Further study is needed to learn how to induce long-term HIV remission in infected babies,” director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), Anthony S Fauci, told The Guardian. “However, this new case strengthens our hope that by treating HIV-infected children for a brief period beginning in infancy, we may be able to spare them the burden of lifelong therapy and the health consequences of long-term immune activation typically associated with HIV disease.”
The doctors are still uncertain as to what is actually going on in the immune systems of these children. There are known cases in which some people – particularly among sex workers – are in effect naturally immune to the virus. These people have not become infected with the virus, despite being exposed to it on a regular basis.
The interesting thing about this latest child, however, is that it does not share the same genetic markers as these immune people, suggesting that there is some other form of immunity that is occurring. The team hope that by studying the child further, they can expand their knowledge of how to coax the body into controlling and fighting the virus. This could lead to better drugs or even the holy grail of a vaccine.