Sacramento, California’s CBS Channel 13 is reporting that a Sacramento woman may be key to finding an HIV cure. The woman in question is part of the tiny group of people who have HIV but see no impact on their immune systems.
Most of the 35 million people living with HIV must take antiretroviral medications to keep the virus from damaging their immune systems. But those rarities like Loreen Willenberg seem immune to the disease. In the 23 years since her diagnosis as HIV-postive, Willenberg has taken no drugs, had no symptoms, and has never gotten sick.
“In a clinical sense, I’m not progressing towards AIDS,” Willenberg told CBS. “I’m not progressing towards the disease.”
Dr. Richard Pollard of University of California Davis told the station that in less than one percent of those who are HIV-positive, the immune system seems capable of controlling the virus and preventing it from damaging cells. There are only 500 known “elite controllers” in the world.
“Their body has such an effective way of reacting to the virus that it’s hard to even detect that they’re virus positive,” said Pollard, whose clinical research includes usage of new antiviral drugs, the care of HIV-positive individuals, and potential HIV vaccines.
In most cases, once HIV has entered a person’s bloodstream it attacks white blood cells known as CD4 T-cells. HIV kills T-cells and replicates itself, while also fighting off immune system attacks (including the CD8 cells that usually combat viral infections).
But in people like Willenberg, CD8 cells remain strong and regulate infected CD4 cells, which appears to keeps HIV from replicating.
“I haven’t had a decline of CD4 cell count at all, and that’s pretty magnificent, and I’m very humbled by that,” Willenberg told CBS.
Not surprisingly, Willenberg’s unusual immune system has made her particularly interesting to HIV researchers, who want to uncover how these elite controllers successfully restrain the virus. Doing her part for science, the 61-year-old, who is currently going to college and majoring in bioethics, has participated in 13 studies. She’s stayed on top of the scientific studies she’s been a part of and served as an HIV advocate for years.
“Finding the answer to that might lead to other kinds of research to try to develop techniques to make someone mimic these elite controllers,” Pollard said.
“If that happens before I go…then I know that I have lived a good life,” Willenberg said.