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Woman living with HIV for almost 30 years appears to be free of virus without medical treatment

Josh Milton August 27, 2020
Loreen Willenberg, 66, has been 'cured' of HIV. (Screen capture via YouTube)

Loreen Willenberg, 66, has been 'cured' of HIV. (Screen capture via YouTube)

A woman who has lived with HIV for almost three decades left health chiefs stunned after she appeared to be free of the virus, researchers reported Wednesday (August 26).

The case of Loreen Willenberg, a 66-year-old Californian who acquired HIV in 1992, has rippled among sexual health advocacy groups as she appeared to be “cured” of HIV without undergoing a bone marrow transplant or taking drugs.

The research, published in the journal Nature, described how the virus appeared no longer able to replicate in Willenberg.

Just two people have been functionally cured of HIV –”Berlin patient” Timothy Ray Brown and “London patient” Adam Castillejo – but both following risky bone-marrow transplants which healthcare experts have long stressed is an unlikely treatment option for the masses.

However top HIV advocate urged to PinkNews that caution must be exercised when considering the case as part of the broader battle against the virus.

Matthew Hodson, executive director of British HIV charity NAM aidsmap, said: “A very small number of people, less than one per cent, seem to have a natural ability to control HIV, even without medication.

“These people are referred to as elite controllers. In the case of Loreen Willenberg, she is the elite among the elite controllers in this study.”

HIV is a shrewd and devastating virus that can insert itself deep into a cell’s machinery, its genomes, effectively tricking it into making copies of HIV.

But researchers from The Peter Doherty Institute for Infection and Immunity found that in Willenberg, the virus had been cast off into far-flung parts of the genome where it can no longer replicate.

A scan showning HIV-1 virions as green round bumps budding from the surface of a cultured lymphocyte cell. Collection/Gado/Getty Images)
A scan showing HIV-1 virions as green round bumps budding from the surface of a cultured lymphocyte cell. Collection/Gado/Getty Images)

Researchers said they were able to laser in on the ways in which the body may be able to suppress naturally HIV.

In examining 1.5 billion blood cells from Willenberg using sophisticated pinpointing techniques, they found almost no trace of the virus. Her immune system appears to have hampered the virus’ capacity to replicate itself.

Study is ‘nature’s proof that a functional cure is possible’.

This mechanism, which Hodson described as “nature’s proof that a functional cure is possible”, is one that will continue to elude scientists, however.

Scientists have frantically studied elite controllers for years, hoping they contain a blueprint for squashing HIV. But “there is no clear pathway to manufacture this response for people who are not elite controllers,” Hodson said.

“This study of elite controllers demonstrates that the virus can be halted but it does not tell us how to turn other people into elite controllers.

“We cannot yet say with confidence why some people are able to control the virus without medication,” he said.

“It could be something that is distinctive about their DNA, and this would be hard and might be impossible to replicate medically.”

Researchers explained how the big question the study pivots is how the findings of the study can be made applicable to the 37 million living with HIV.

More: California, Health, HIV, US

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