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Stanford pediatric AIDS expert: Was the baby really cured?

In the last few days, there has been much talk about the baby born with HIV who was reportedly cured of the disease – only the second documented case of an AIDS “cure.” Like a good scientist, Yvonne Maldonado, MD, a pediatric AIDS expert at Stanford, is a bit skeptical and says there are many questions yet to be answered.

“It brings a lot of promise and hope but there are lots of details to be looked at before the next step can move forward,” said Maldonado, chief of pediatric infectious disease at Stanford and Lucile Packard Children’s Hospital. She has been doing research on mother-to-child HIV transmission for many years, working with a group of women in Zimbabwe.

According to news reports, the Mississippi mother came to the hospital in labor, and tests showed she was HIV-positive. Because the mother had never been treated for HIV, doctors knew the chance was high that she would transmit the virus to her baby. So within 30 hours of the baby’s birth, they took the unusual step of treating the infant aggressively, with a full cocktail of antiretroviral drugs. The child continued treatment for 18 months, then stopped. And when the mother brought the two-year-old  back for a checkup, tests showed – remarkably – that the baby was virus-free.

One pressing question, Maldonado says, is whether the baby was truly infected. Babies can acquire HIV from their mothers in several ways – either in utero, during labor and delivery or as a result of breastfeeding.

Did this child become infected in utero with the virus, which was ultimately eliminated by the antiretrovirals? Or did the child simply carry some circulating virus from the mother in its blood – and the drugs stopped the virus from establishing itself in the baby?

“Those are two different things,” Maldonado told me. In the first case, “That would be a functional cure. The other would be preventing early post-partum infection,” a form of prevention, rather than cure.

She said there have been anecdotal reports of babies who have been able to clear the virus from their bodies. “You can find virus in infants that then disappears because they haven’t become infected,” she said.

If, on the other hand, this is truly a functional cure, then that has many implications for treatment of infants down the road. “If in fact that was the case, maybe that means instead of giving light therapy to prevent infection, all these babies (of HIV-positive mothers) should be getting heavy-duty therapy right from the start.”

Maldonado notes that pediatrics has routinely led the way in HIV prevention and treatment, as unlike adults, one can often identify when a baby became infected – and then quickly move to intervene. She said it’s unfortunate the latest case, reported at a scientific meeting, occurred during the weekend of the budget sequester.

“Our capacity to study this will be limited,” she said. “NIH will be flat-funded, and yet here’s an opportunity to look at these paradigm-shifting concepts. But these things need resources. It may be a serendipitous finding, but it will be just that if you don’t do more science-based inquiries.”

Previously: International AIDS Conference Day Three: Daring to talk about a cure and Experts discuss German patient who appears cured of HIV

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