The national announcement of the discovery of a possible cure for HIV could mean exciting breakthroughs for UNC’s renowned AIDS research community.
At the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Atlanta Sunday, researchers announced that a child in Mississippi who was diagnosed as HIV-positive at birth now shows no detectable signs of the disease.
Susan Fiscus, a UNC professor of microbiology and immunology who attended the conference, said scientists aren’t sure why the baby appears not to have HIV, the virus which leads to AIDS.
“This is very exciting, but obviously the child must be monitored,” she said.
“Being able to study this person will allow us to have valuable info.”
Researchers at the conference said the baby girl being studied was born to a mother who had received no prenatal care and did not know she was HIV-positive until she gave birth.
When the baby received her first treatment about 30 hours after birth, she was already showing signs of HIV.
She received regular HIV drug treatment for 18 months that made the virus virtually undetectable, but then the mother stopped bringing the child to the clinic.
When she returned five months later, the virus could no longer be detected — even though she had not been receiving any treatment.
Nancie Archin, a research associate at UNC’s Center for Infectious Diseases, said while more research needs to be done, these preliminary results are interesting.
“Everyone is excited, and we are excited too,” she said.
Kristina Abel, an assistant professor of microbiology and immunology at UNC who also attended the conference, said in an email that the current course of HIV research may change as researchers look further into the effectiveness of this type of early antiretroviral therapy.
The announcement sparked a national debate as to whether early detection and treatment is the key to curing AIDS.
“This is certainly the first time we’ve seen this,” Fiscus said. “It’s definitely unique.
“We’re asking ourselves, ‘Have we missed this because we haven’t looked for it?’”
But the experts said it is still too early to speculate whether course of treatment that the baby received would eliminate AIDS.
“We can’t pronounce her cured,” Fiscus said. “We have to wait and see.”
Fiscus said there could be genetic differences with the child that allowed her to fight the infection, but treatment and research schemes could be planned around a genetic anomaly if one is found.
Archin said it would be a good sign if researchers could replicate the scenario in an adult.
She said the child is still young, and better testing can be performed on adults to check for the existence of the virus.
“It is possible that the virus was indeed eradicated,” Abel said. “Alternatively, the virus could be latent and become activated again.”
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