Researchers may be on the verge of a breakthrough in HIV treatment after discovering a French teenager who has kept the disease in remission for 12 years without the use of medications. Doctors don’t know why this single case has been so exceptional, but they’re hard at work trying to decipher her unique success story.
The unidentified, 18-year-old French woman got HIV before birth from her mother’s untreated infection. According to the AP, doctors gave the baby the standard HIV medication zidovudine, or AZT, for her first six weeks, but the deadly virus was still rampant. So they strengthened the treatment, giving the small child a powerful four drug cocktail.
They continued that treatment until the girl was six, when they lost contact. When the family reemerged, the mother revealed she had taken the French girl off the treatment, yet lab reports showed the virus was still in remission. The doctors decided against starting the treatment again.
It’s now been 12 years, and the virus is still in remission. Amounts of the HIV virus found in the French girl’s blood is so low it can no longer be detected with standard tests – although more sensitive measures show a tiny bit does remain.
Researchers are baffled, but excited.
“We are learning from this patient, that’s why it’s so exciting. We are learning clearly which kind of response the strategy for the future should use. This is critical if we want to make progress in the field of remission in the future.”
Many doctors believe that the aggressive early treatment decimated the disease, allowing the French girl to naturally keep it in remission. That theory is supported by research on the “Visconti patients,” 14 adults who were treated early after HIV infections but stopped taking the medications three years later. The patients were then able to keep their HIV under control naturally.
Today, there are 12 patients still not taking medications with an average remission period of 10 years.
Doctors believe one of the keys to both the French girl and Visconti patients’ success is early aggressive treatment, but that still doesn’t offer a complete explanation.
Virologist Deborah Persaud called the teenager’s case “extremely rare.”
“Many kids have gone off treatment — and treated that early — and we haven’t seen this outcome. Parents should not take their child off their antiretroviral regimen to see if they’re like this child.”
Now, researchers are looking for a natural defense in the French teenager’s biology to help explain her rare resistance. If they find biological markers, it can pave the way to new treatment strategies for a “functional” cure.
Doctors described the rare HIV case in a presentation to the 2015 International AIDS Society conference in Vancouver, B.C.
[Image Credit: Getty Images]