Stunning news is coming from the ninth annual International AIDS Society Conference in Paris this weekend in the shape of a nine-year old girl from South Africa. Some scientists are hopeful that she may hold the key for an HIV cure.
The girl, whose identity has been protected, was diagnosed HIV-positive at only 30-days old, according to CNN. She was put on antiretroviral therapy at two months-old and stayed on treatment for 40 weeks, until it was interrupted.
Up until a few weeks ago, the girl remained undetectable for over eight years without having to get back on treatment. While it's known that some unknown genetic factors might have been at play here, doctors still don’t know how to make of it.
“We don't believe that antiretroviral therapy alone can lead to remission,” Dr. Avy Violari, head of pediatric research at the Perinal HIV Research Unit in Johannesburg, said to BBC. "We don't really know what's the reason why this child has achieved remission - we believe it's either genetic or immune system-related."
This isn’t the only case where a child has remained undetectable without meds. Two other cases in the United States and in France are also creating dialogue about whether treating HIV-positive babies early on has long-term benefits for viral suppression, and might prevent them from taking anti-HIV meds their whole lives.
In the United States, a child was put on antiretroviral treatment within 30 hours of birth and went 27 months without treatment before HIV re-emerged in the blood.
The case in France involved a child who’s gone over 11 years without any drugs and is still undetectable.
“We as scientists are extremely excited by this case,” Caroline Tiemessen from the National Institute for Communicable Diseases, South Africa, said to CNN. “I think the challenge is to try and pin down exactly what were the events that lead to this in this child, and what it is that is very special about this case.”
It’s important to note that while the South African girl lacked active HIV, the virus still lived inside reservoirs — that means they were latent (i.e. “sleeping”) all this time, but never formally cured.
Some immune systems are better at dealing with HIV than others, but this child is unlike anything researchers have seen before. Hopes of replicating whatever defense mechanism her cells might have into a drug, antibody, or vaccine will likely help people whose immune systems aren’t as strong.
Of course it’s too soon to tell, but as London-based Professor Diana Gib said to BBC, "It captures the imagination because you've got a virtual cure and it is exciting to see cases like this, but it is important to remember it is one child. HIV is still a massive problem around the world and we mustn't put all our eyes on to one phenomenon like this, as opposed to looking at the bigger issues for Africa."