HIV is a virus that weakens your immune system and spreads through unprotected sexual contacts and sharing needles. There isn't an effective cure for HIV, but somehow, some people seem to have the ability to "cure" HIV by themselves.
Loreen Willenberg is one of them. Loreen, 66 now, caught HIV when she was 38 years old, and surprisingly tamed the virus without taking drugs or a bone marrow transplant.
Her case has given scientists a new approach to treat HIV — they are trying to figure out what is special about Loreen, and find new strategies to control the virus. Tough as HIV is, it is not undefeatable.
The "elite controllers"
Among all the 38 million HIV-infected people in the world, less than 0.5% of them have the "superpower" to somehow get the virus in control. Even taking no drugs, they keep the virus at undetectable levels in their blood.
In a study published in Nature recently, researchers analyzed 64 HIV-infected people with the "superpower" to control HIV, who were called "elite controllers."
They found that 63 out of 64 "elite controllers" have abundant and intact HIV genomes, so-called proviruses, integrated in their cells. It seems that these people have eliminated infected cells with proviruses, and these proviruses are in an area where they can more easily copy themselves.
In this way, their immune systems can handle for prolonged periods.
Among these people, Loreen has the lowest levels of proviruses. Besides, the only proviruses found in her cells are incapable of producing new HIVs.
Despite her untreated HIV infection, Loreen has an intact immune system in appearance.
Flush of hope
This study suggests that some people may have a ‘functional cure.’
This is also a footstone for conjectures that patients after antiviral therapies could control the virus and then stop taking drugs.
Dr. Steve Deeks, author of the study, said, "It does suggest that the treatment itself can cure people, which goes against all the dogma.”
More researches are still needed to find out why it appears to be the case. The challenge now is to identify how to translate this elite controller trick to the far larger infected population.
Maybe one day in the future, we can indeed see HIV gradually become a curable disease. More and more people are spared from the torment of HIV.
What can we do?
Dr. Michael Brady, Medical Director at Terrence Higgins Trust, says that the unacceptable stigma and outdated views which continue to surround the virus also make HIV patients suffer.
The patients are already suffering from the disease. Although we cannot help to cure them, we can add no additional distress to them.
They are just normal people like us, but unfortunately they catch a rather hard to treat disease. Please be kind to them. No more discrimination and malevolence.