Living Well with HIV: Hope Rekindled

From the time someone one is diagnosed with HIV, a relationship with hope is established. One of the first hopes I recall having was wishing that somehow medical staff had got my test results mixed up in some bizarre administrative error and that I didn’t really have HIV. After some time and a few additional tests later, my acceptance of my HIV diagnosis became easier. Then the hope that somehow my immune system was different from everybody else’s and that my body would naturally defeat and conquer HIV. Again a few more test results later and the slow trend decline in my immune cells felt inevitable.

There is also the hope that nature will have the solution – we just need to look. Another hope came forth in my belief that there was an elusive key ingredient hidden in a remote and little investigated forest in the southwest or an overlooked desert plant that rarely sprang to life. However people with HIV have to be careful of not falling prey to scoundrels offering a medicinal elixir with claims of having a cure to HIV.

Along comes the ‘Berlin patient’. In 2006 a US man residing in Germany, who had been living with HIV for more than decade, and who was successfully taking HIV medication developed Myeloid Leukemia. His treating physician, Dr Gero Hutter instigated chemotherapy. When the time came for a bone marrow donor, Dr Hutter found someone who had compatible tissue and was naturally resistant to HIV of which about one percent of the population has this genetic advantage. After receiving the bone marrow, the ‘Berlin Patient’ has been free of HIV and no longer takes any HIV medication. His German doctors suggest that he is now cured.

When I first read this case it brought tears to my eyes firstly as I was around when the first person with HIV was cured, but secondly and more importantly it brought hope that if a treatment can be successful for one it could be successful for many. Now clearly chemotherapy and bone marrow transplant are costly, with a high risk of death from the procedure. We are also assuming that compatible donors can be found for everyone. In reality, the practical transferability of this ‘cure’ is extremely low. However in my hopeful mind one person has been cured and more will follow and in the mind of scientists, what was once an obscure possibility is now real.

What is so very exciting is that at the recent Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Boston, Jay Lalezari presented a paper on the possibility that Gene Therapies for HIV (along the lines of the Berlin Patient) is continuing to progress with promising results. Even though a cure for HIV is maybe five, ten or more years away, to live with hope is very life affirming.

Cipri Martinez