Researchers are announcing that a 53-year-old man in Germany has been cured of HIV.
Referred to as "the Dusseldorf patient" to protect his privacy, researchers said he is the fifth confirmed case of an HIV cure. Although the details of his successful treatment were first announced at a conference in 2019, researchers could not confirm he had been officially cured at that time.
Today, researchers announced the Dusseldorf patient still has no detectable virus in his body, even after stopping his HIV medication four years ago.
"It’s really cure, and not just, you know, long term remission," said Dr. Bjorn-Erik Ole Jensen, who presented details of the case in a new publication in "Nature Medicine."
"This obviously positive symbol makes hope, but there's a lot of work to do," Jensen said
For most people, HIV is a lifelong infection, and the virus is never fully eradicated. Thanks to modern medication, people with HIV can live long and healthy lives.
The Dusseldorf patient joins a small group of people who have been cured under extreme circumstances after a stem cell transplant, typically only performed in cancer patients who don’t have any other options. A stem cell transplant is a high-risk procedure that effectively replaces a person's immune system. The primary goal is to cure someone's cancer, but the procedure has also led to an HIV cure in a handful of cases.
HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, enters and destroys the cells of the immune system. Without treatment, the continued damage can lead to AIDS, or acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, where a person cannot fight even a small infection.
With about 38.4 million people globally living with HIV, treatments have come a long way. Modern medication can keep the virus at bay, and studies looking into preventing HIV infection with a vaccine are also underway.
The first person with HIV cure was Timothy Ray Brown. Researchers published his case as the Berlin patient in 2009. That was followed by the London patient published in 2019. Most recently, The City of Hope and New York patients were published in 2022.
“I think we can get a lot of insights from this patient and from these similar cases of HIV cure," Jensen said. "These insights give us some hints where we could go to make the strategy safer."
All four of these patients had undergone stem cell transplants for their blood cancer treatment. Their donors also had the same HIV-resistant mutation that deletes a protein called CCR5, which HIV normally uses to enter the cell. Only 1% of the total population carries this genetic mutation that makes them resistant to HIV.
“When you hear about these HIV cure, it’s obviously, you know, incredible, given how challenging it’s been. But, it still remains the exception to the rule," said Dr. Todd Ellerin, director of infectious disease at South Shore Health.
The stem cell transplantation is a complicated procedure that comes with many risks, and it is too risky to offer it as a cure for everyone with HIV.
However, scientists are hopeful. Each time they cure a new patient, they gain valuable research insights that help them understand what it would take to find a cure for everyone.
“It is obviously a step forward in advancing the science and having us sort of understanding, in some ways, what it takes to cure HIV," Ellerin said.
Kaviya Sathyakumar, M.D., M.B.A., is a family medicine resident physician at Ocala Regional Medical Center in Florida and member of ABC News Medical Unit.