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Australian researchers warn recent HIV cures claims could amount to false hope

Burnet Institute

12 March, 2019

News gilda tachedjian in lab 2019 510 x 230 iwd

Professor Gilda Tachedjian has been involved in HIV research for 30+ years.

Australian researchers have warned of false hope as recent news of HIV cures from overseas has created considerable interest. A leading HIV researcher from Burnet Institute, Professor Gilda Tachedjian agrees.

In summary:

  • Two men were allegedly cured of the virus, a third has remained HIV-free for 12 years
  • Bone marrow transplants from a donor with a HIV-resistant gene were needed
  • We can’t call it a cure. It’s best to call it a remission, researchers warn
  • The virus could be hiding in the patient’s tissue.

Below is an excerpt of the article by David Aidone, from the News Corp Australia Network.

It comes after it was revealed this week that two men were allegedly cured of the virus, joining a third who has remained free of HIV for 12 years. Each case involved bone marrow transplants provided by a donor with a HIV-resistant gene.

But Australian experts have said the treatment will never be commercially available, describing the horrific side-effects that come.

The cures this week came out of the UK and Germany, where the bone marrow transplants were intended to treat cancer. The marrow came from donors with a CCR5 delta 32 mutation, meaning they have HIV resistance.

The London patient has been off anti-HIV drugs for 18 months, and the German man, four months.

But there are a number of hurdles. Just a small percentage of the world’s population carry the miracle mutation.

The Kirby Institute’s Associate Professor Stuart Turville told News Corp there are many complications that come with transplantation.

Dr Turville, who works under the Institute’s Immunovirology and Pathogenesis program, said he had heard Timothy Brown - dubbed the “Berlin patient”, who has been cured for 12 years - speak at a conference, describing the harrowing procedure.

“It was during his 10 year anniversary of not having any virus detectable, and one of the things he said to me personally was, ‘bone marrow transplant is not something you’d want to wish on your worst enemy’,” Dr Turville said.

Experts suggest the events might not even amount to a cure, rather, a long-term remission.

The Burnet Institute’s Head of Life Sciences, Professor Gilda Tachedjian, echoed Dr Turville’s concerns.

“We can’t call it a cure. It’s best to call it a remission,” Professor Tachedjian said.

Professor Tachedjian, a retroviral biology and antivirals expert, said this was because the London patient has only been virus-free for 18 months.

“And this is only in the blood. The virus could be hiding in the patient’s tissue.”

She said that patients could also be infected by HIV X4, which meant a transplant with the CCR5 mutation would be ineffective.

“And bone marrow transplants can be traumatic and dangerous,” she said.

“We need to be very cautious about how we talk about these individuals, and not give false hope the millions of people living with HIV.

But she said the medical events weren’t without their benefits.

“It does gives us insights as to how the virus hides in the body, and how we can work towards a cure,” she said.

“I’m cautiously optimistic.”

Research from the Australian Federation of AIDS Organisations shows that 27,545 people were estimated to be HIV positive at the end of 2017. A further 2,899 people were unaware they were HIV positive, according to the data.

The organisation’s most recent statistics also showed the number of HIV notifications had fallen from 1032 in 2013, to 937 in 2017.

Find out more about our HIV research.

Contact Details

For more information in relation to this news article, please contact:

Professor Gilda Tachedjian

Head of Life Sciences; Head of Tachedjian Laboratory (Retroviral Biology and Antivirals)

Telephone

+61392822256

Email

gilda.tachedjian@burnet.edu.au

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