Human Immune System Beats HIV for the First Time

a patient has been cleared of hiv without medical treatment

By Jonny Lupsha, Wondrium Staff Writer

A human patient seems to have defeated HIV on their own for the first time, Science News reported. The retrovirus has mostly been incurable since it was discovered. HIV cripples the immune system, leading to AIDS.

Blood Samples
Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, the world experienced an outbreak of HIV, leading to the resulting AIDS epidemic. Photo by Victor Moussa / Shutterstock

According to Science News, an astounding medical first has finally happened: A human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) patient seems to have spontaneously been cured of the virus.

“Twice, people infected with HIV have had levels of the virus in their bodies drop to undetectable levels after bone marrow transplants, never to return,” the article said. “Now it appears that a person may have cleared functional HIV with no help. If true, it would be the first known instance of a spontaneous cure.”

HIV attacks our immune system, leading to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS), which is incurable. Before his unfortunate passing, Dr. Bruce E. Fleury, Professor of the Practice in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University, taught Mysteries of the Microscopic World for The Great Courses. It includes a lecture on AIDS. This article contains some of the knowledge he offered on the subject.

How HIV Leads to Death

“HIV relies on the fluid route for transmission; the virus is carried in the blood or in the semen,” Dr. Fleury said. “Microbes that travel in the blood often rely on insect vectors like mosquitoes or their technological counterpart, the hypodermic needle. But the trifecta for the fluid route is sex; saliva, semen, and sometimes blood are all flowing.”

Dr. Fleury explained that this, along with intimate body contact, makes for the optimal mode for disease dispersal, which is why so many of the deadliest disease are transmitted sexually. It also spreads no toxins. Instead, it strikes the most vulnerable part of the immune system, known as helper T cells, which orchestrate the immune response.

“Once that virus kills enough helper T cells, the immune system can no longer coordinate an attack, and every cell in the body becomes a safe haven for the virus,” Dr. Fleury said. “AIDS victims don’t die from AIDS; they die from cancer or pneumonia or tuberculosis. Because the victim’s body can no longer recognize a cancerous cell, any cancerous growth can be fatal.

“More AIDS victims die of cancer than from any other cause; 30-40% of AIDS victims will develop a malignant tumor.”

The Problem of Newness

Dr. Fleury said that AIDS was first recognized from a cluster of rare cancer cases in San Francisco in 1981, though its first case has since been traced back to 1969. That may seem like ancient history, but for a disease that can take up to 10 years to develop noticeable symptoms, it’s quite the opposite.

“One of the reasons that AIDS is so deadly is because it’s so new,” Dr. Fleury said. “A scant 50 years have passed since the first cases appeared, and that’s really not much time for the body to evolve a defense, and not much time for AIDS to coevolve to a less virulent strain, like syphilis and scarlet fever.”

Scientists do know some things about where HIV and AIDS came from. Dr. Fleury said that AIDS is related to a group of primate viruses called SIVs, which stands for simian immunodeficiency virus. He also said there are two strains of HIV. HIV-1 is highly virulent and widespread, probably originating in African chimps. HIV-2 is mostly confined to West Africa.

“The virus may have lived in apes for centuries,” he said. “A 2010 study in Science presents genetic evidence that SIV has existed in monkeys for at least 32,000 years. Asian monkeys can get sick from AIDS, but African monkeys are asymptomatic. In humans, however, AIDS has become extremely deadly.”

Although a proper cure for HIV is still a long way off, a human beating the virus without external assistance is a good sign.

Edited by Angela Shoemaker, Wondrium Daily

Dr. Fleury is Professor of the Practice in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University

This article contains material taught by Dr. Bruce E. Fleury. Before his passing, Dr. Fleury was Professor of the Practice in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at Tulane University, where he previously earned his MS and PhD in Biology. He earned a BA from the University of Rochester in Psychology and General Science.