What science can do**

A really interesting story about the only man cured of HIV was on NPR’s Morning Edition today.

Brown, 45, had two bone marrow transplants in Berlin in 2007 and 2008 to treat leukemia that is apparently unrelated to his HIV infection. The blood cells for the transplants came from a donor with a genetic mutation that makes his cells immune to HIV — they lack receptors the virus needs to gain entry to cells. Details about his case were published in the New England Journal of Medicine.

Cured!  (probably) – Source

There is some controversy about whether he still have virus cells in his system, as you can read in the article. But the common consensus is that this is amazing.  And now the questions arise: Even if he does have a few HIV cells floating around his blood, is he still cured?

The latest findings are sure to be debated among AIDS researchers and advocates. Their main significance is to show how tricky it will be to determine exactly what constitutes a cure, as researchers devise various tricks to cure AIDS with less drastic means than bone marrow transplants. The question is, when can they be reasonably sure a cure has occurred?

I understand that HIV/AIDS and cancer are very different diseases.  But look at the progress that has been made over several decades.  In 1983, the idea that we would be deciding whether someone was cured or not of AIDS, that we would be debating how few cells mean cure, was unthinkable.  Back then, virtually everyone who contracted AIDS died of it, and in about 9 months from diagnosis.  Now the average survival time after diagnosis is 24 years.

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What made the difference?

Antiretroviral medications.  They were a game-changing medical breakthrough.  HIV is a retrovirus, meaning it attaches to the host cell, then changes the DNA.  It changes these healthy cells making it difficult for the immune system to attack them and giving the virus longevity.  In 1983, scientists were able to identify this nature of HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.  In 1987, antiretrovirals were created, affecting the disease’s ability to change the DNA.  By 1996, death rates fell significantly.  Now it’s possible that a genetic mutation that leads to immunity has been discovered.

Successful ACT UP campaign

How did this all happen so quickly? 

We saw how devastating the disease was, even in mainstream movies like Philadelphia (1993).  And there was huge collective action to break the taboo and demand treatments, prevention education, and a cure, most commonly associated with ACT UP.  I encourage you to read that Wikipedia link.  What they accomplished is nothing short of astounding.

What can we learn from the history of the AIDS activism movement?  

I think that if ACT UP had never bridged the gap between “a gay disease” to “a scourge on humanity,” medical breakthroughs would have been delayed or lost entirely.

We’re missing something here.  We’ve failed to communicate the true cost of breast cancer.  We’ve failed to band together and demand change.  We’ve given over this disease to cultural stereotypes.  Our images of pink fun; our organizations that trivialize with words like “boobies” and “ta-tas;” our triumphant title of SURVIVOR… they’ve done us all a great disservice.  They’ve held us back.

** NOTE:  I don’t want to imply here that AIDS has been eliminated.  It’s a huge pandemic, fueled by stigma, lack of education, lack of healthcare access, and lack of global women’s rights.  My point is that we’ve proven that it CAN be done.