A person dubbed the “London patient” appears to be the second person ever to be cured of HIV since the global epidemic began in the 1980s, according to a case study published earlier this month in the journal Nature.
The London patient now joins Timothy Ray Brown, also known as the “Berlin patient,” as the only other person to be cured of HIV, the virus that leads to AIDS. Brown received a bone-marrow stem cell transplant in 2007 and another in 2008 to treat leukemia — but in the end, the transplants cured him of both cancer and HIV.
Just like Brown, the London patient’s HIV was cured as a result of a bone-marrow transplant that was being used to treat cancer (Hodgkin’s lymphoma) that he was diagnosed with in 2012. He received a stem cell transplant in 2016 and has been HIV-free for 18 months.
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Both patients received stem cells from donors with a rare genetic mutation of the CCR5 gene, which is HIV-resistant.
The news is being hailed by some as a scientific breakthrough, raising hopes for a cure of the devastating virus that affects almost 37 million people per year, while many critics argue that HIV/AIDS can only truly be tackled when systemic issues of poverty are also addressed.
HIV disproportionately affects marginalized populations around the world, including men who have sex with men, transgender women who have sex with men, and black and Latino populations. African countries are the most affected by HIV, according to the World Health Organization. In 2017, there were 25.7 million people living with HIV in the region, and it reports more than two-thirds of new HIV infections worldwide.
Here’s what experts in the industry have to say about the "London patient."
Ian Bradley-Perrin, HIV activist and PhD student in sociomedical sciences at Columbia University
“As a person living with HIV, I think it is exciting that emerging research is demonstrating the possibility of curing HIV. For a long time, until the ‘Berlin Patient,’ it has been one of the myths of HIV that it is incurable, and could never be [curable], but this disproves this.
But as an activist, I [am] keenly aware of socioeconomic issues related to this kind of a cure. The complexity of this type of cure and its expense clearly has limits in an epidemic that is disproportionately affecting poor people in developed countries and globally is in nations without access to the medical care that would be required for this kind of procedure. So it is a muted excitement.”
Raniyah Copeland, president and CEO, The Black AIDS Institute*
Photo provided by The Black AIDS Institute
“I think it's a really, really exciting breakthrough, to be able to finally replicate the first known cure. It doesn’t mean [a cure for all] tomorrow, but it does mean that we’re closer than we’ve ever been before. The true end of HIV — especially for black folks — still lay with prevention and accessing the tools that have been developed in the last three decades. Black communities in particular are still being infected and dying at wildly disproportionate rates. We need to utilize the resources already available, which have taken HIV from a deadly to a chronic disease. We know that black people don’t achieve viral suppression in the way our other counterparts do. We have to make sure we do the other work to ensure that the communities that need these resources are receiving them.
This is not the end, but it’s an important step in getting there. I don’t think ethnicity per se means a whole lot in terms of the science of a cure but does underscore that black folks need to be involved in clinical research. I think that what it means is that it’s really important that people who are heavily impacted by HIV are taking part in clinical trials and in research so that we can see what this means for all communities.”
Paul Kawata, executive director, NMAC (formerly the National Minority AIDS Council)
“I think it’s wonderful news but it’s not scalable at any large level to really make a difference in terms of people living with HIV in the world — because in order for this cure to work, you have to get cancer. And so, I think it proves that we can have a cure, but I don’t think it’s viable for most people living with HIV.
When you get a headline in the news that says HIV is cured, that sends a message that all HIV is cured, when the reality is that it is a very specific case … It’s wonderful news, [but] it really doesn’t apply to most people living with HIV and our concern is that the wrong messages get sent out in the world, and that people hear there’s a cure when there’s really not for most people.”
Sandra Ka Hon Chu, director of policy and advocacy, Canadian HIV/AIDS Legal Network
Photo provided by Sandra Ka Hon Chu
“While this is a welcome development, the fact remains that the treatment (i.e. transplant) that the ‘London patient’ received is out of reach for millions of people still in need of HIV treatment, and millions more are at risk of HIV infection because of persistent stigma and discrimination. If we are going to meaningfully tackle HIV, we must also continue to address the numerous human rights violations that people living with and at risk of HIV face.
We will continue to advocate for things that we know work and also uphold human rights: the removal of laws that unjustly stigmatize and criminalize people living with and at risk of HIV.”
Linda-Gail Bekker, deputy director, Desmond Tutu HIV Centre and immediate past president of the International AIDS Society
So happy to have this important partnership between #WomenDeliver#IAS2018 at Generation-Now pre-conference at @AIDS2018. Choice and rights for women are key to good HIV programming. pic.twitter.com/NABf1c3ESm— Linda-Gail Bekker (@LindaGailBekker) July 22, 2018
“It’s important to try to be accurate in what has actually happened … I prefer the word remission, which I think is more accurate for what has actually occurred here.
This is not an intervention that you would offer to somebody who doesn’t also need treatment for a life-threatening cancer … We don’t willy-nilly give people bone marrow transplants, unless they have a medical reason for it.
Do I think this is a scalable, [translatable] treatment for the massive  million people who are currently living with the virus? Definitely not. That is not the case. But it is first of all a triumph for medical science, it’s a triumph for the London patient, and it teaches us more about the pathogenesis or the interaction between HIV and the human host.”
Gary Lacasse, executive director, Canadian AIDS Society
Photo provided by the Canadian AIDS Society
“We applaud what’s happening … because it’s a second case. We understand that we can’t replicate this case at large numbers, but it could eventually lead to a cure through other research that has some positive outcomes from this second cure.
So we’re very happy and very pumped because we need cases like this to lead the way.
This may be a turning point for research in Canada, to maybe focus on what happened with the second patient and develop a cure later down the road.”
*This statement was also issued to other outlets regarding news on the "London patient."
Statements have been edited slightly for clarity.