A medical breakthrough is a significant step forward in theory development or research. From the bionic eye to the 3D printing of arms and legs, from gene therapy to innovative cancer treatments and more, we are living in a period of time when medical breakthroughs are more of an expectation than a surprise. But that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t celebrate when they happen.
Medical breakthroughs in HIV are particularly important to the LGBT community, the sub-population most affected by the HIV epidemic. In 2016, “gay and bisexual men accounted for 67% (26,844) of all HIV diagnoses and 82% of diagnoses among males aged 13 and older” according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC).
We should be paying attention to the HIV-related medical breakthroughs that are happening right now.
Another HIV Cure?
In early March 2019, The New York Times (NYT) first reported that a second person has been cured (or, at the least, is experiencing sustained remission) of HIV. It has been nearly 12 years since the Berlin Patient, Timothy Ray Brown, received the same report of his HIV cure. Both men underwent difficult bone marrow transplants which cured their bodies of HIV.
What makes this second case—known as the London Patient—as significant as the first IS the fact that researchers have attempted to replicate Brown’s success story but have largely been unsuccessful in curing other patients of HIV in the same way. More than 10 patients have died undergoing these types of bone marrow transplants, showcasing the life-or-death nature of these difficult procedures.
While the majority of mainstream media relies on sensational reporting and claims, beneath the flashy headlines you can sense the renewed energy and hope among the research community. In speaking with NYT, Dr. Annemarie Wensing, a virologist at the University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands says, “This will inspire people that cure is not a dream. It’s reachable.”
I could not agree more. It is completely possible that we could see a cure for HIV in our lifetimes. In the meantime, currently available medicine for those of us living with HIV can render us with an undetectable viral load—which means we aren’t capable of transmitting HIV to sexual partners, and for this purpose at least, many laypeople, including myself, consider this a “functional cure” or remission of HIV.
Organ Donation from Patient Living with HIV
Another recent medical breakthrough is credited to researchers and surgeons at Johns Hopkins Hospital (JHH) for performing the first organ transplant between patients living with HIV in the US [corrected from print to include ‘in the US’].
Previously, transplant from someone living with HIV to another patient was illegal, and deemed highly questionable by the medical community. Much of this fear stemmed from the notion that the surgery could lead to a fatal outcome for either of the patients, based on the assumption that someone living with HIV has a weakened immune system.
Since the first changes to the laws preventing this type of procedure, surgeons have been performing organ donations only from deceased persons with HIV. The Johns Hopkins operation was the first between two HIV-positive people who were alive. According to a press release from JHH, since the change in law allowing these procedures, there have only been 116 organs transplanted into someone living with HIV. In contrast, in the past 30 years, over 152,000 kidneys have been transplanted among those without an HIV diagnosis. Currently there are over 113,000 people on organ transplant waiting lists.
Interestingly, the woman living with HIV who donated her kidney for this landmark procedure, 35-year-old Nina Martinez, was inspired to volunteer after watching an episode of "Grey's Anatomy" about a transplant from a live, HIV-positive donor. She became serious about the procedure when her friend needed a transplant. Although she immediately contacted researchers and endured a rigorous screening, her friend passed away before the surgery could occur. But now, she’s helped save another patient’s life.
In a recent interview during a press conference before her operation, Martinez said, “Society perceives me, and people like me, as people who bring death. And I can't figure out any better way to show that people like me can bring life."
The recipient of Martinez’s organ has chosen to remain anonymous, but researchers and surgeons report positive results from the transplant and expect a full and speedy recovery for both patients.
These two medical breakthroughs for HIV are worthy of celebrating. It will be exciting to see what other medical breakthroughs happen throughout the remainder of this year and beyond. In the meantime, must honor and support those working to achieve these milestones in medicine.
Josh Robbins is an award winning sexual health advocate, author of the site imstilljosh.com and spokesperson for DatingPositives.com. He was nominated for a GLAAD media award in 2017 and recently won the National Lesbian and Gay Journalist Association’s Excellence Award in the blogging category.