How one person was spontaneously cured of HIV—and what that may mean in the fight against AIDS

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Credit: Kateryna Kon/Shutterstock

Twice, people infected with HIV have had levels of the virus in their bodies drop to undetectable levels after bone marrow transplants, never to return. Now it appears that a person may have cleared functional HIV with no outside help. If true, it would be the first known instance of a spontaneous cure.

Analysis of more than 1.5 billion cells taken from a patient known as EC2 showed no functional HIV copies in any of them, researchers report August 26 in Nature. The person still had some nonfunctional copies of the virus. While no one can say for sure that intact virus isn’t hiding in a cell somewhere in this person’s body, the finding suggests that some people’s immune systems can get the upper hand, essentially eliminating the pernicious and persistent virus.

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Researchers want to know how elite controllers quash the virus for long periods of time. It has been difficult to figure it out, [HIV researcher Satya] Dandekar says, because no one has recorded the first fight scenes between HIV and the elite controllers’ immune systems.

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“Once you figure out the mechanism [by which] this is working, maybe you can figure what goes wrong in everyone else and fine-tune it,” [virologist Monica] Roth says. The researchers have eliminated some possibilities, but haven’t solved the mystery yet of how elite controllers achieve their status.

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