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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat

 

    Scientists ‘cure’ HIV in second newborn worldwide

    At a recent AIDS conference in Boston, Mass., researchers announced they had effectively cured a baby of HIV, making the child the second newborn baby to be functionally cured of the disease.

    In an article recently published by The New York Times, researchers said they essentially cured the baby of Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV, with aggressive drug treatment hours after the child was born. Although the child is still being treated, doctors said that even the most sensitive blood tests are unable to detect any sign of the virus. However, researchers caution that this does not necessarily mean the child is completely cured of the disease.

    The apparent success of the treatment has opened the door for a clinical trial that will administer an aggressive HIV treatment to up to 60 newborns.

    According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, approximately 50,000 people are diagnosed with HIV each year, with the majority of infections occurring in gay and bisexual men as well as intravenous drug users.

    While the disease is primarily spread through unprotected sexual contact, it can also be transmitted during childbirth if the mother is infected with HIV.

    “There are three ways that a mother can pass the virus to her children,” said Nafees Ahmad, a professor in the department of immunobiology and an HIV researcher.

    The most likely form of transmission occurs as the baby passes through the birth canal. In other cases, the child is exposed to the virus via the placenta, though this happens less frequently.
    The third way a child can contract HIV from its mother is through breast milk, making it a significant problem in developing places like India and Africa because of the possibility of malnutrition if a baby is not breast-fed, Ahmad said.

    When HIV-positive women are pregnant, they are often treated with anti-HIV drugs during pregnancy to lessen the likelihood of passing the disease onto their child. Thanks to this type of treatment, doctors at the University of Arizona Medical Center have not seen an HIV-infected baby in the last several years, said Ahmad.

    Though these advancements have made significant strides toward transforming HIV into a chronic disease rather than a death sentence, there is still work to be done before an outright cure is found.

    The reason that HIV is so problematic is that after the virus attaches itself to a host cell, it infiltrates the genetic code of the host, said Eric Price, a lecturer in the department of physiology.

    “What makes this type of virus difficult is that the DNA is then integrated into our own genome so it is part of our DNA,” he said, “and it’s hard to fight something that is part of your own code.”

    When HIV infects the body, it affects T helper cells, or white blood cells, which play a significant role in the immune system, Ahmad said. The infection of these T cells leads to “immunodeficiency” in hosts, meaning their immune system is unable to fight back against infectious agents.

    “HIV kills the T helper cells, so when these cells are killed, they cannot provide help to other immune cells in order to fight infection,” Ahmad said.

    When the body’s immune system is no longer able to fight back against infections, HIV develops into Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. This occurs when the number of T helper cells has dropped dramatically, according to the CDC. Without these cells, the body cannot activate its immune system.
    Though there are treatment options available for those living with HIV, there is no cure. Patients instead take medication that decreases the viral load, or the amount of the virus circulating in the body. For those taking the medication, the viral load can sometimes be undetectable, as it was for the functionally cured newborn.

    “Having an undetectable viral load when on medication is not uncommon,” said Kareem Shehab, an assistant professor in the UA Department of Pediatrics who specializes in infectious diseases. “Having an undetectable viral load is the goal of HIV therapy.”

    Though researchers view the news of the newborn with optimism, many — including Shehab — hesitate to use the word “cured” to describe the child, opting instead to say the baby is in remission.

    Calling the child cured with any degree of certainty is difficult due to the fact that the virus can continue to exist in “holes” or “reservoirs” in the body that do not show up in blood tests, Ahmad said. So, while the viral load is undetectable, the virus may still be present. Currently, scientists are trying to figure out a way to flush the virus out of these reservoirs in order to kill it with HIV medication and completely eradicate it from the body, he said.

    A second article published in The New York Times explored the idea of altering the genes that allow HIV to take hold in the body. Some people have a mutation in a gene known as CCR5, Ahmad said, that makes it difficult for them to become infected with HIV. Scientists are therefore looking for ways to enact this mutation in the gene to slow the spread of the disease and decrease the risk of contraction.

    Despite the breakthroughs being made in HIV and AIDS research, no patient has been proven to be 100 percent cured of HIV.

    “This [functionally cured newborn] is very incredible news,” Ahmad said, “but they need more cases to be cured, and a follow-up study is very important.”

    -Follow Michaela Kane
    @MichaelaLKane

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