A 30-year-old mother in Argentina has become the second known person in the world to be cured of HIV just by her own immune system.
Researchers, who have not released her name, are calling her the “Esparanza (hope) patient” to express their hope that her extremely rare recovery can help the tens of millions of people living with HIV.
“I enjoy being healthy,” she told NBC News. “I have a healthy family. I don’t have to medicate, and I live as though nothing has happened. This already is a privilege.”
Led by Gabriela Turk of the Institute for Biomedical Research on Retroviruses and AIDS (INBIRS) at the University of Buenos Aires, researchers wrote in a paper published in the Annals of Internal Medicine that the Esperanza patient was diagnosed with HIV in 2013 but has lived for the past eight years without antiretroviral treatments.
Despite this, her viral load is undetectable.
Researchers, though, were able to find defective proviruses – or viral DNA integrated into cellular DNA – but no full proviruses were found, even after they tested over a billion of her cells. The defective proviruses can’t replicate themselves.
“Now we have to figure out the mechanisms,” said University of California San Francisco HIV researcher Dr. Steven Deeks. “How does this happen? And how can we recapitulate this therapeutically in everybody?”
The Esperanza patient is part of a group of people called “elite controllers,” that is, people whose immune systems are able to stop HIV from replicating without the help of medications. Less than one percent of people living with HIV are believed to be elite controllers, and their T-cells still have small reservoirs of proviruses. It’s possible that they can still transmit the virus to other people.
But elite controllers like the Esperanza patient – for whom intact proviruses can’t be detected – are much more rare. Before the Argentine woman, there was a 67-year-old Californian who was diagnosed in 1992 with HIV and later found to have completely eliminated the virus from her body.
And that’s it.
Several patients have been cured using a complicated, difficult, and risky procedure that involves a bone marrow transplant. One such person was Timothy Ray Brown, also known as the Berlin patient. He had leukemia and received a bone marrow transplant from someone with the CCR5 protein mutation in 2007.
His surprising cure inspired further research for an HIV cure.