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Is there a recently discovered breakthrough cure for HIV?

Claim: A Twitter user claims HIV now has a cure after using a novel stem cell transplant approach. 

There is so far no proven cure for HIV and the stem-cell transplant from CCR5 donors is only a promising prospect. This makes the claim misleading. 

Full Text

Human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) is an infection that attacks the white blood cells called CD4 cells.

As at 2020, there were an estimated 37.7 million people living with HIV and the virus continues to be a major global public health issue, having claimed 36.3 million lives so far. 

A Twitter post by Pride (@masi_nonxuba) claims HIV cure has been found as three patients were cured of it. The cure, the post claims, used a novel stem cell transplant approach. 

‘HIV cure has been found. After using a novel stem cell transplant approach, three patients have now been declared HIV free’ the post read.

Screenshot of the Twitter post

The search for a cure for HIV has been in the works for a long time, thereby making this claim vital to verify. 

Verification

A look at this post made on Thursday, February 17, 2022, showed the post has gained a lot of attention. As of⁸ Monday, February 21, 2022, the post had generated 63,000 retweets, 6,166 quote retweets and 395,000 likes. 

Despite this much traction, there were varying comments under this post. A Twitter user, Mr Closet (@Reeuq11) commented that a potential curative treatment was found, not a cure. 

Screenshot of comment by @Reeug11. 

Another comment cautioned the poster on his use of words noting this is not a viable cure for everyone.

Screenshot of comment by @kosmikastaway

Another Twitter user commented requesting a link to an article about this claim.  The Poster responded with a link for news24.com which carried a report by Reuters with the headline ‘first woman reported cured of HIV after bone marrow transplant’. 

According to this report, published on February 16, 2022, this case is part of a larger US-backed study led by Dr Yvonne Bryson of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and Dr Deborah Persaud of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

A keyword search showed this story had been widely reported by BBC, New York Times,  Voice of America (VOA), Reuters, Aljazeera etc.   

A study of these reports showed that a 64-year-old woman who was being treated for leukaemia was reported cured of HIV. This came after receiving a stem cell transplant for her leukaemia. The woman has now been free of the virus for 14 months.

This woman is said to be the third patient cured of HIV and the first woman. The first two patients were male (Timothy Ray Brown and Adam Castillejo).

Timothy Ray Brown, a Berlin patient who was the first person reported to be cured of the virus, was given a bone marrow transplant to cure his acute myeloid leukaemia in 2007. His donor had a rare mutation in part of their deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA) called the CCR5 gene which makes the donor naturally resistant to HIV. 

In 2020, Castillejo, a London patient was revealed to be the second person cured of HIV also through a stem-cell transplant for his cancer.

The transplant method used here, involving umbilical cord blood, has been said to be too risky and not suitable for most people with HIV.

What is the CCR5 gene?

From the report of the first patient of HIV cured, we saw that the stem-cell received was from a donor who had a DNA resistant to HIV called the 

C-C chemokine receptor type 5 (CCR5) gene. What exactly does this mean? 

In 1996, researchers discovered that CCR5 encodes a receptor on CD4+ cells that HIV uses to enter the cells early on during an infection and people who have two copies of the so-called Δ32 allele don’t produce this receptor, and therefore seem to be protected against the virus.

Naturally occurring CCR5-specific antibodies have been found in exposed but uninfected people, and in a subset of HIV seropositive people who show long-term control of the infection. The identification of naturally occurring CCR5 mutations makes the CCR5 molecule a promising target to prevent or limit HIV infection in vivo. 

This study on cured patients notes the critical role CCR5 plays in maintaining HIV-1 infection.

What does the WHO say?

The World Health Organisation (WHO) noted there is no cure for HIV but the disease can be managed by treatment regimens composed of a combination of three or more antiretroviral (ARV) drugs.

‘Current antiretroviral therapy (ART) does not cure HIV infection but effectively   suppresses viral replication within a person’s body and allows an individual’s immune system recovery to strengthen and regain the capacity to fight off opportunistic infections and some cancers’ part of the WHO document read.

Since 2016, the WHO recommended that all people living with HIV be provided with lifelong ART. This  includes children, adolescents, adults and pregnant and breastfeeding women, regardless of clinical status or CD4 cell count. 

This recommendation, as at June 2021, has been adopted by 187 countries covering 99% of all people living with HIV globally.

Conclusion

Although the search for a cure for HIV has been in the works, there is so far no proven cure for the virus. The stem-cell transplant method the Twitter user mentioned is not new as it had been used for a patient as far back as 2007. The three patients who have received this stem-cell transplant were suffering from cancer and needed it to save their lives. While this therapy reportedly cured them of HIV, curing their HIV was not  the primary goal and the therapy is too risky for everybody with HIV.

Also, our research and data by the WHO on HIV shows there is so far no cure for HIV and the CCR5 gene is only a promising prospect. This makes the claim false and misleading. 

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