A woman in Argentina has been cured of HIV solely by her immune system, making her only the second documented case anywhere of someone cured of HIV without treatments.
The woman, who is from the northeast Argentinian city of Esperanza, appears to have eradicated the deadly virus from her body, which would make her only the second documented HIV case cured without the help of drugs, stem cell therapy, or other experimental treatments, according to research published in the peer-reviewed medical journal JAMA Internal Medicine.
Researchers in Argentina and Massachusetts collected blood samples from the patient from 2017 to 2020, meticulously scanning the DNA of more than a billion cells for HIV virus cells. The study was led by Dr. Xu Yu of the Ragon Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT and Harvard.
“This gives us hope that the human immune system is powerful enough to control HIV and eliminate all the functional virus,” Yu said. “Time will tell, but we believe she has reached a sterilizing cure.”
The researchers remain unsure as to how the patient's body was able to apparently rid itself of the HIV virus, among the most difficult to eradicate from the human body. "We think it's a combination of different immune mechanisms – cytotoxic T cells (cells that destroy virus-infected cells, tumor cells and tissue grafts) are likely involved, innate immune mechanisms may also have contributed," Yu wrote in an email.
The only other known case of a patient who seemingly cured themselves from the aggressive HIV virus is a 67-year old California woman named Loreen Willenberg. Even after sequencing billions of her cells in 2020, scientists could not find any intact viral sequences.
The two are among “elite controllers” of the HIV virus – the estimated 1 in 200 people with HIV whose own immune systems are somehow able to suppress the virus’s replication to very low levels without antiretrovirals. Yu authored a paper about these so-called elite controllers.
“This paper is a nice showcase of the level of sophistication of the analyses that can be done now,” Paula Cannon, a molecular microbiologist who studies HIV and gene editing at the University of Southern California’s Keck School of Medicine, told health-oriented news publication STAT.
“Finding somebody who is an elite controller – who not only is currently not exhibiting any HIV RNA viruses in her body, but also doesn’t look like she has the potential to do that any time in the future – isn’t exactly surprising, but it is exciting.”
HIV is the virus that causes the auto immunodeficiency disease known as AIDS, which leaves the human immune system highly susceptible to other illnesses such as COVID-19. Roughly 38 million people are living with HIV infection around the world and around 690,000 people died from AIDS-related illnesses worldwide last year.