For the second time since the AIDS epidemic began, a patient appears to have been cured of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. Researchers say this confirms that finding a cure for HIV, while challenging, is possible.
The patient, who had HIV, had received a bone marrow transplant to treat his cancer. This is the second time that a bone marrow transplant has reportedly been effective against HIV.
“I am excited at the likelihood that HIV has been eradicated from another patient,” says Dr. Jonathan Jacobs, founder and executive director of the Center for Special Studies, the HIV clinic at NewYork-Presbyterian and Weill Cornell Medicine. “The CCR5 mutation that made this possible is a fascinating and important part of the science.”
But Dr. Jacobs cautioned that bone marrow transplants are not practical treatments on a wide-scale basis, given the expense, risks, and potential side effects. “The challenge is to look at the mechanisms that made this milestone possible and develop new technologies to take advantage of these insights and help the millions of people waiting for a cure.”
That’s promising news to Dr. Peter Gordon and Dr. Samuel Merrick. When they began treating patients at NewYork-Presbyterian’s first HIV clinics nearly three decades ago, medicines weren’t effective and people with advanced AIDS were almost certain to die.
“The people I cared for in the early 1990s, most of them passed,” says Dr. Gordon. “Back then, there was little expectation of survival, but you could hopefully improve the quality of the time they had left.”
“Fast forward to today,” he adds, “if you’re diagnosed with HIV as a 22-year-old and take medicine to control the virus, you can expect to live a near normal lifespan.”
That is a great leap forward in a relatively short period of time, but HIV still poses a threat around the world. In 2017, 36.9 million people were living with HIV and 940,000 died of AIDS-related illnesses, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. And while there’s still no vaccine or cure, in just a few decades HIV has gone from a near death sentence to a manageable, chronic disease in the United States and most developed countries. Today, New York state is aggressively working to curb new infections, with the number of new HIV diagnoses hitting a record low.
“I’m optimistic that we can end the epidemic in New York state in the next few years,” Dr. Merrick says.
Today, these NewYork-Presbyterian HIV clinics are marking their 30th anniversaries, having provided care from the earliest days of the AIDS epidemic. And Drs. Gordon and Merrick were there almost from the start.
Dr. Gordon was a medical resident when he began treating patients at the Comprehensive Health Program, now comprising three HIV clinics: one for adults, another for teens, and a third for women, children, and young adults at NewYork-Presbyterian/Columbia University Irving Medical Center.
Dr. Merrick, meanwhile, finished his medical residency on a Friday in 1991 and began working that Monday at the Center for Special Studies, which has two adult HIV clinics: one at NewYork-Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center and the other in the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan.
Today, they serve as medical directors of these programs, and recently spoke with Health Matters about the clinics’ decades of HIV care — from the darkest days of the AIDS crisis to today’s intensified focus on ending the epidemic.