When I first reported on AIDS in 1985, it seemed like a death sentence for those diagnosed with the disease. Then along came antiretroviral drugs which allowed people to live with the illness provided they could afford the medicines. Now comes real hope of a cure.
Last month’s International AIDS Conference in Washington DC reverberated with talk about a man from Berlin named Timothy Brown, who was already infected with the HIV virus (which causes AIDS) when he underwent radical treatment for the leukaemia from which he also suffered – namely, the complete destruction of his immune system.
To provide him with a new system, his doctor found a donor with a rare genetic mutation which gives immunity to HIV infection. Then he treated Mr Brown with bone marrow cells from the donor. After this, the HIV virus seems to have disappeared from Mr Brown’s body.
The treatment would be too expensive and too risky to try on a large scale, but it is one of a number of signs that a cure may be possible. In the meantime, the disease still managed to kill 1.7 million people last year.