The woman is one of the very few patients in history to ever contract the autoimmune disease and somehow fully recover from it.
Why is HIV so problematic and complicated?
A simplified answer would be that HIV evades the normal immunity system mechanisms for getting rid of cells infected by viruses.
HIV is notoriously difficult to purge from the body because it infects certain long-lived immune cells known as viral reservoirs that can spend lengthy periods of time in a resting state.
This keeps the viral DNA that is encoded into those cells under the radar of standard antiretroviral treatment, which can only attack the virus in infected cells when they are actively churning out new copies of HIV.
Nevertheless, HIV, which was once an ambiguous nightmare when it initially appeared in the eighties, has now become a manageable chronic condition once it is controlled by antiretroviral therapy; failed treatments are usually attributed to poor drug adherence, wherein medication doses are frequently missed, or treatment is interrupted.
But completely recovering from the disease is more or less impossible, which is why the Argentinian lady’s story has made headlines across the globe.
The woman is known in the media now as the ‘Esperanza Patient,’ after the town in Argentina where she lives. In English, Esperanza means hope.
The now cured patient was first diagnosed in 2013, and after eight years of follow-ups, 10 tests found no detectable levels of the virus in her blood or tissue, and no one knows exactly how this miracle happened.
For decades, scientist have been pursuing the dream of either curing HIV or producing a vaccine to no avail.
According to data from the WHO, 38 million people are living with HIV worldwide, and only two of them have ever been cured of it; and both cases required complex and dangerous stem cell transplants.
The study announcing the cure of the Argentinian lady was published on Monday in the ‘Annals of Internal Medicine’, and the case serves as proof that curing the virus is apparently possible through natural immunity.
Another success story that has driven scientists to intensify their research efforts is the case of the two men who researchers succeeded in prompting a sterilising cure — the American Timothy Ray Brown and London resident Adam Castillejo.
The men received stem cell transplants to treat acute myeloid leukemia and Hodgkin lymphoma, respectively, from donors with a rare genetic abnormality that made their cells resistant to HIV.
After more than four years passed since Castillejo’s stem cell treatment and with no sign of the virus resurging, the physician was ready to assert for the first time that the British man was cured of HIV.
In 2019, Bjorn Jensen of Düsseldorf University Hospital presented the case of a third man, known as the ‘Düsseldorf Patient’, whom the German physician and his colleagues said had likely also been cured through this method.
This man has still not experienced a viral rebound three years after being taken off his antiretroviral treatment.
While these three cases have stirred considerable excitement, the treatment the men received is too toxic to attempt as a cure for HIV in anyone who is not also facing cancer treatable with a stem cell transplant.
Since Brown’s case was first published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2009, scientists have failed a number of other times to cure HIV in individuals through similar means.
The Esperanza Patient reminds us of Loreen Willenberg, a now-67-year-old Californian who was diagnosed with HIV in 1992 and has an immunity system that apparently vanquished the virus entirely.
Willenberg’s case of an apparent natural cure of HIV is quite similar to the Esperanza Patient’s.
The experts’ first theories posit that each of these women may have produced a particularly strong T-cell response to the virus naturally, dubbed the ‘extraordinary elite control of HIV.’
37.7 million people worldwide currently live with HIV, which can lead to AIDS if left untreated.
HIV spreads through bodily fluids, usually after unprotected sex or needle-sharing.
The Egyptian Ministry of Health and Population reported in 2020 that over 13,000 Egyptians are living with HIV/AIDS.