By Joseph Ax
NEW YORK (Reuters) – U.S. AIDS activists said on Tuesday they were encouraged by news that a patient in London became the second known person to be cleared of the deadly HIV infection but warned that the development is only one more step in a decades-long battle.
Doctors in Britain said on Monday that the HIV-positive man had been cleared after he received a bone marrow transplant from an HIV-resistant donor.
Ravindra Gupta, who co-led a team of doctors treating the man, described his patient as “functionally cured” and “in remission,” but cautioned: “It’s too early to say he’s cured.”
Medical experts hailed the announcement as confirmation that it is possible to cure HIV, a virtual death sentence before advances in treatment made it manageable.
Even so, the bone-marrow transplant that appears to have eliminated the virus is too risky, complicated and expensive to serve as a widespread cure. Experts hope it can eventually lead researchers to a safer and more cost-effective strategy.
More than half a dozen U.S. activists, including those who have lived with the illness for decades, emphasized that the development would do little to help those who are currently HIV positive, because the procedure cannot be administered broadly.
“This is the kind of thing that gets overhyped and contributes to the complacency that the public has about the epidemic,” said Sean Strub, who founded POZ magazine, a publication for HIV-positive readers. “It does not do a single thing to prevent transmissions and cure people.”
Rather, Strub said, the public should focus on policies that would have an outsized impact on the HIV-positive community: expanding Medicare, curbing the high prices for HIV drug cocktails, protecting the rights of LGBT people and increasing funding for AIDS relief.
Before the London case, researchers had spent 12 years trying to replicate the effort that cured the “Berlin patient,” later identified as Timothy Brown. The procedure was a last resort for the London patient, who was dying of blood cancer and received a bone marrow transplant from a donor with an HIV-resistant genetic mutation.
“We are making progress,” said Larry Mass, a co-founder of Gay Men’s Health Crisis. “This is hopeful and important – but it’s not going to affect the lives of people with HIV in the next few years.”
About 37 million people worldwide are infected with HIV. AIDS has killed 35 million people since it emerged in the early 1980s. Treatment options have made major gains over the years, turning what was invariably a fatal disease into a chronic illness that can be controlled for decades.
Some who have lived with HIV for years said the fact that it can be managed obscures the health complications that can arise from both the virus and its medication.
“It’s one thing when you hear something is manageable and another thing to live it,” said Greg Louganis, the Olympic champion diver who was diagnosed with HIV in 1988, six months before he won two gold medals in Seoul.
Tez Anderson, who founded Let’s Kick ASS (AIDS Survivor Syndrome) and has lived with HIV since 1983, said he fears the London news will reinforce the misperception that AIDS is no longer a epidemic thanks to advances in treatment, even though some 40,000 new HIV cases are reported in the United States every year.
“I’m afraid this is perpetuating the myth that the end of AIDS and a cure is imminent,” Anderson, 59, said. “I’ve had so many ‘milestones’ in my years with HIV that I could build a highway to nowhere.”
Others said the London development will have a lasting impact if it spurs additional research funding.
“Right now, we’re at a point in the epidemic where people see viral suppression as a functional cure, so there’s not as much interest in cure research as there used to be,” said Andrew Spieldenner, a professor of communication at California State University San Marcos and the chair of US People Living with HIV Caucus.
(Reporting by Joseph Ax; Editing by Alistair Bell)