An Argentinian woman has become the second ever person in the world to rid herself of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) without drugs or medical treatment, according to researchers.
According to a report published Tuesday in the Annals of Internal Medicine titled, “A Possible Sterilizing Cure of HIV-1 Infection Without Stem Cell Transplantation,” a now 31-year-old woman who was diagnosed with HIV in 2013 only took antiretroviral therapy for six months during pregnancy to stop the infection transmitting to her baby.
Tests on more than a billion of her cells found no viable trace of the infection and doctors believe the patient’s immune system may have cleared the virus on its own.
Researchers have dubbed the woman the “Esperanza patient,” after her hometown. The word “esperanza” translates to “hope” in English.
“Genome-intact and replication-competent HIV-1 were not detected in an elite controller despite analysis of massive numbers of cells from blood and tissues, suggesting that this patient may have naturally achieved a sterilizing cure of HIV-1 infection. These observations raise the possibility that a sterilizing cure may be an extremely rare but possible outcome of HIV-1 infection,” researchers wrote.
However, scientists noted that, “absence of evidence for intact HIV-1 proviruses in large numbers of cells is not evidence of absence of intact HIV-1 proviruses. A sterilizing cure of HIV-1 can never be empirically proved.”
The study was funded by the National Institutes of Health and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.
Only one other person in the world was found to have overcome HIV without medical intervention: a 67-year-old woman named Loreen Willenberg from San Francisco.
Willenberg was diagnosed with HIV in 1992 and has been labeled as “elite controller,” or a person who maintains an undetectable viral load without having to take any drugs or medication.
“There is no way to ever say we have proof that there is not a single virus in this patient,” Xu Yu, who co-authored the latest study, told TIME. “The only thing we can say is that after analyzing a large number of cells from the patient, with the technology in our lab we cannot reject the hypothesis that the patient probably reached a sterilizing cure by natural immunity.”
Yu said the Esperanza patient is working with researchers and continues to provide blood samples for ongoing research studies. She is also now pregnant with her second child, and doctors wonder if her elite controller status means she will not require any anti-HIV drugs before and during delivery, as per guidelines for pregnant women who are HIV positive.
Researchers will also examine samples of the Esperanza patient’s breast milk to determine if it contains any virus, Yu said.
“Many immune factors could be playing a role,” the researcher said. “Now that we have a second case, there are probably many cases out there that may not know they have a sterilizing cure. Some may not even be aware they are infected. We are hoping to attract more patients; if we have a cohort of these extremely rare cases, then that will allow us to really analyze their immune responses in more depth and breadth and hopefully give us a hint about what immune factors contribute most to this status. Then we can apply what we learn to the general population.”
An estimated 37.7 million people were living with HIV at the end of 2020 and tens of millions have died from HIV-related causes, according to the World Health Organization.
HIV targets the immune system, destroying immune cells and weakening the body’s defense against multiple infections, including cancer, that those with healthy immune systems would typically be able to fight off. The virus can develop into acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) if untreated. There is currently no cure for HIV or AIDS, but medications can help to drastically slow the progression of the disease.