WASHINGTON — A baby born with virus that causes AIDS appears to have been cured, scientists announced Sunday, describing the case of a child from Mississippi who’s now 2½ and has been off medication for about a year with no signs of infection.
There’s no guarantee the child will remain healthy, although sophisticated testing uncovered just traces of the virus’ genetic material still lingering. If so, it would mark only the world’s second reported cure.
Specialists say Sunday’s announcement, at a major AIDS meeting in Atlanta, offers promising clues for efforts to eliminate HIV infection in children, especially in AIDS-plagued African countries where too many babies are born with the virus.
“You could call this about as close to a cure, if not a cure, that we’ve seen,” Dr. Anthony Fauci of the National Institutes of Health, who is familiar with the findings, told The Associated Press.
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A doctor gave this baby faster and stronger treatment than is usual, starting a three-drug infusion within 30 hours of birth. That was before tests confirmed the infant was infected and not just at risk from a mother whose HIV wasn’t diagnosed until she was in labor.
“I just felt like this baby was at higher-than-normal risk, and deserved our best shot,” said Dr. Hannah Gay, a pediatric HIV specialist at the University of Mississippi.
That fast action apparently knocked out HIV in the baby’s blood before it could form hideouts in the body. Those so-called reservoirs of dormant cells usually rapidly reinfect anyone who stops medication, said Dr. Deborah Persaud of Johns Hopkins Children’s Center. She led the investigation that deemed the child “functionally cured,” meaning in long-term remission even if all traces of the virus haven’t been completely eradicated.
Next, Persaud’s team is planning a study to try to prove that, with more aggressive treatment of other high-risk babies. “Maybe we’ll be able to block this reservoir seeding,” Persaud said.
Some outside experts, who have not yet heard all the details, said they needed convincing that the baby had truly been infected. If not, this would be a case of prevention, something already done for babies born to infected mothers.
“The one uncertainty is really definitive evidence that the child was indeed infected,” said Dr. Daniel Kuritzkes, chief of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
Persaud and some other outside scientists said they were certain the baby — whose name and gender were not disclosed — had been infected. There were five positive tests in the baby’s first month of life — four for viral RNA and one for DNA. And once the treatment started, the virus levels in the baby’s blood declined in the pattern characteristic of infected patients.
No one should stop anti-AIDS drugs as a result of this case, Fauci cautioned. But “it opens up a lot of doors” to research if other children can be helped.
The only other person considered cured of the AIDS virus underwent a very different and risky kind of treatment — a bone-marrow transplant from a special donor, one of the rare people who is naturally resistant to HIV. Timothy Ray Brown of San Francisco has not needed HIV medications in the five years since that transplant.
Information from The New York Times is included