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See Inside Scientific American Volume 306, Issue 3

Blocking HIV's Attack

Scientists have rid one man of HIV by preventing the virus from entering certain immune cells. But the treatment was dangerous and likely unrepeatable. Can they figure out a safer, more broadly achievable way to help millions more?



Illustration by Owen Gildersleeve, Photograph by Sam Hofman

A little more than three years ago a medical team from Berlin published the results of a unique experiment that astonished HIV researchers. The German group had taken bone marrow—the source of the body’s immune cells—from an anonymous donor whose genetic inheritance made him or her naturally resistant to HIV. Then the researchers transplanted the cells into a man with leukemia who had been HIV-positive for more than 10 years. Although treatment of the patient’s leukemia was the rationale for the bone marrow transplant therapy, the group also hoped that the transplant would provide enough HIV-resistant cells to control the man’s infection. The therapy exceeded the team’s expectations. Instead of just decreasing the amount of HIV in the patient’s blood, the transplant wiped out all detectable traces of the virus from his body, including in multiple tissues where it could have lain dormant. The German researchers were so surprised by the spectacularly positive results that they waited nearly two years before publishing their data.

The news seemed too good to be true. And yet five years after undergoing his initial treatment, the so-called Berlin patient (who later disclosed his identity as Timothy Ray Brown of California) still shows no signs of harboring the AIDS virus—despite not taking HIV-fighting, antiretroviral drugs for all this time. Of the more than 60 million people who have been infected with HIV over the past few decades, Brown is so far the only individual who appears to have well-documented eradication of the infection.

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