Most people living with HIV need antiretroviral therapy (ART), a special set of drugs that inhibits the virus from multiplying in the body. Modern ART allows infected people to lead a normal life: viral load is reduced to undetectable, patients do not infect others, and their quality and life expectancy are the same as those of people without HIV. However, the virus is insidious, it can hide inside individual cells for years and strike again if a person quits therapy or if the virus itself adapts to treatment.
There is also an experimental method of treatment that has been used only twice so far – bone marrow transplantation from a donor resistant to HIV infection due to a rare mutation. It is like a complete reinstallation of a computer’s operating system. However, so far such operations are considered too dangerous for widespread use.
There is also a special group of people known in science as “elite controllers”. These are people whose immune systems are able to fight HIV infection on their own. In August 2020, it became known that one of the patients from the “elite controllers” probably completely defeated the disease. Scientists have not been able to find traces of the virus in more than a billion blood cells. Now there is news of another woman who has recovered. To preserve medical secrecy in published materials, she was given the pseudonym Esperanza.
In this case, researchers were unable to find traces of HIV in more than 2 billion blood cells. And if the first patient was monitored since 1992, before she was declared healthy, Esperanza went from detecting the virus to winning in just seven years. However, so far, researchers are in no hurry to announce a complete victory over the virus, even for these two lucky women. In the published materials, they say with confidence only that the “elite controllers” have not been found to have viable HIV, which indicates a possible cure of the infection. At the same time, experts believe that there are many people who do not even suspect that they have defeated HIV.
Elite controllers are scrutinized to understand what makes their immune systems so unique. Scientists hope that the characteristics of these patients will help create more effective HIV treatments.