On Tuesday, scientists in Paris claim to have discovered the genetic mechanism that allows for a "spontaneous cure" among a very rare group of HIV-infected patients called "elite controllers." These people belong in a fewer-than-1-percent group. They are able to keep the virus inactive in their bodies, with virtually undetectable symptoms.
The two asymptomatic patients studied in this case were a 57-year-old man diagnosed in 1985, and a 23-year-old man infected in 2011. The scientists have stated the phenomenon isn't new. However, they've detailed new findings in medical journal Clinical Microbiology and Infection, writing that the virus was inactive due to an altered HIV gene coding that prevented it from replicating in immune cells. This spontaneous evolution is called "endogenization." The claim states this could be the result of the stimulation of an enzyme—a method that could possibly be used for a future AIDS cure.
"The work opens up therapeutic avenues for a cure, using or stimulating this enzyme, and avenues for identifying individuals among newly infected patients who have a chance of a spontaneous cure," they wrote. This is a different approach from previously attempted cures, which aimed to eradicate all traces of HIV from the body. The researchers believe that, instead, it may actually be the persistence of HIV DNA that could cure infected patients. To further their study, the scientists have called for "massive sequencing" of human DNA, particularly from African patients who have been exposed to HIV the longest.
It's not a foolproof method, and we could still be far from a real AIDS cure. There are still many scientists who are dubious about the findings. For one, Jonathan Ball, molecular virology professor at University of Nottingham, has told AFP that there is no real evidence of a cure in their work. Others, like Sharon Lewis, Director of Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne, say that the real battle now is finding the right protein for "crippling the virus." Only time, and a lot more research, will tell.
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