Successful first steps for HIV cure reached, what comes next?

Photo courtesy of Karolina Grabowska, Pexels.

On Feb. 15, Reuters reported the first successful case of a woman being cured from HIV, which makes history as she is only the third person reported total. All three people were treated simultaneously to cure their cancer diagnoses.

The newest patient healed is a landmark in the research for curing HIV for a variety of reasons. HIV has, for decades, been wrongly generalized as a virus which affects only gay men due to the American epidemic in the 1980s. Today, women make up more than half of the people infected around the world.

Yet clinical trials for a cure are done predominantly on men, according to the New York Times. Writer Apoorva Mandavilli says this may be attributed to the history of men fighting to get into early trials, as well as a community network of knowledge on available ones today.

“Women with HIV tend to be isolated, and may not advocate for themselves,” Mandavilli wrote. “They may need help with child care or transportation, or be more comfortable with female doctors — accommodations few trials offer.”

Another reason this success is so significant is because the woman is of mixed-race, a factor which is often limiting in cure trials because of the nature of stem cell transplants requiring close matches between recipient and donor. While many stem cell donors are white, the cells used to treat this woman were umbilical cord blood cells, making it a solution which may be more acceptable for many bodies.

“Umbilical stem cells are attractive,” said Dr. Steven Deeks, according to the Times. “There’s something magical about these cells and something magical perhaps about the cord blood in general that provides an extra benefit.”

Research for a cure for HIV has been in motion since 1984 after the epidemic in America began in 1981. It has been 40 years since then, and an estimated 36.3 million people have died of HIV. Only three people have been cured. Why?

The details of global funding for HIV cure research is complicated, especially because a majority of cases and deaths today occur in developing countries who cannot afford to fund research on their own. The U.S. is the largest contributor of funds, but HIV remains stigmatized among American people. 

I cannot help but believe that if this virus were not so commonly mistaken for a problem which only affects the LGBTQ+ community, and instead was regarded as something which continues to take lives around the world constantly, perhaps more progress would have been made by now. 

Even with these successes, the stem cell transplants are only being done on patients also battling cancer. The newest patient's cure sets a hopeful path, but more funding is going to be necessary every year in order to make bigger strides.

As Rowena Johnston, director of research at the Foundation for AIDS Research said, “If we’re going to find a cure, it’s important that we find a cure that actually works for everybody.”