There have been a lot of stories and Tweets this week about some German scientists who claim to have “cured” a man of HIV infection using a bone marrow or stem cell transplant (they’re basically the same thing, a method for replacing diseased immune system cells).
An article in Huffington Post is rich with hyperbole, declaring this a “stunning medical breakthrough.”
The Sydney Morning Herald says that “experts are blown away” by the HIV cure.
All this buzz reminds me of a similar story in 1989 in the New York Times, in which Johns Hopkins medical researchers were reported to have pretty much done the same thing — cleared HIV out of a patient by using bone marrow transplantation.
Two days later, the NYT wrote another story essentially saying that their first story had overstated things and while the transplant had cleared HIV out of the patient’s system, it was premature to be calling it a cure. I believe the patient died, in any case.
Now, more than two decades later, we are hearing again about curing AIDS through immune system replacement.
Some media are urging caution about assuming we have finally come up with a practical cure for HIV-AIDS. CNN notes that the transplant procedure is both risky and expensive, and unlikely to ever be a “universal cure.” Others note that the donor of the cells to the German patient had a rare genetic mutation that might make this a special case.
In short, while this could be scientifically significant as a clue to developing new therapies for fighting HIV it is almost certainly not a cure for AIDS. Just as it wasn’t in 1989.
Here’s a very detailed description of this case by AIDSMap.