Scientists ‘cure’ a child born infected with HIV

Doctors in the US have for the first time seemingly cured a child who was born infected with HIV.  The child, now two and half, has […]


Doctors in the US have for the first time seemingly cured a child who was born infected with HIV.  The child, now two and half, has no detectable HIV particles in their blood, despite not having taken any medication for over a year. The work was presented at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Atlanta by Dr Deborah Persaud, a virologist at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

The mother did not find out she was HIV-positive until she was in labour, by which time it was too late to administer the drugs that would normally be given to prevent transmission to the baby.  Ordinarily, women with AIDS are given anti-HIV drugs during the pregnancy and have a Caesarean delivery, preventing 98% of transmission between mother and child. The child is also given drugs to further reduce risk of transmission.  However, in this case, paediatric HIV specialist, Dr Hannah Gay, started treating the baby (who hasn’t been named) only 30 hours after the birth. The treatment was more potent than drugs that are normally given to newborns, because of the child’s high-risk status.

The child continued treatment for a year, though after a month the levels of the virus were undetectable by normal lab tests.  At the age of 18 months, the mother and child stopped visiting the clinic, and when they returned five months later, Dr Gay “fully expected that the baby would have a high viral load.”  However, all the HIV tests on the child were negative.  They believe that the child was cured because of the aggressive treatment so soon after birth, that blocked infection of CD4 T cells, immune cells that can house the virus for years.  This cure would probably not work on older people since their CD4 T cells would already be infected.

The only other case of someone with AIDS being cured was in 2007 when Timothy Ray Brown received treatment for leukaemia that involved a blood stem cell transplant from a donor who was genetically immune to HIV.  This case is so special because it involved widely-used antiretroviral drugs, which are normally required for the rest of the patient’s life.  However, Gay warns “It is far too early for anyone to try stopping effective therapy just to see if the virus comes back”, until they understand why the child was cured.

And this is unlikely to influence what happens when HIV-positive mothers give birth, because the preventative methods currently used are preferable.  Nevertheless, this is an exciting step in HIV research and could lead to more effective treatments.

About Iona Twaddell

Iona is a third year undergraduate studying psychology at Wadham.