Boston researchers earlier in the year reported that two patients who had undergone bone marrow transplants for cancer were HIV-free, after they were asked to stop their antiretroviral medication.
The excitement was short-lived as researchers announced Thursday that the virus had returned in both patients, suggesting that the virus can hide in the body without being detected.
Timothy Henrich of Brigham and Women’s Hospital released the initial findings at an international conference of AIDS researchers in Florida, to help inform other studies based on earlier claims.
“We felt it would be scientifically unfair to not let people know how things are going, especially for potential patients,” said Henrich.
The two patients had been battling HIV for years before their marrow transplants for cancer. After surgery, they agreed to stop the antiretroviral medication to test whether that medication was keeping the HIV in check or if it was the transplant fighting the virus in their bodies.
After weeks of testing their blood, researchers in July reported that they could not find any traces of the virus.
But in August the virus returned in one of the patients, who then resumed taking HIV medication. As an ethical gesture the second patient was offered medication as well. The patient declined.
But last month after being HIV-free for eight months, the virus returned to the second patient, who went back on medication.
According to Heinrich, the return of the virus can be attributed to HIV reservoirs, latent cells carrying the genetic code of HIV.
“This suggests that we need to look deeper, or we need to be looking in other tissues . . . the liver, gut, and brain,” Henrich said. “These are all potential sources, but it’s very difficult to obtain tissue from these places so we don’t do that routinely.”
At present the only patient believed to have been cured of HIV is Timothy Ray Brown. German doctors claimed in 2009 that Brown had been cured off HIV after receiving bone marrow transplant for leukemia.
While doctors are disappointed with the new findings they said it would help advance better strategies to battle the virus.
“There are a lot of hurdles,” said Dr. Steven Deeks, professor of medicine at the University of California, San Francisco. “But this [the Boston researchers’ approach] dramatically advanced the cure research agenda.”
[The Boston Globe]