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Feature HIV/AIDS

Could cancer research hold the key to a cure for HIV?

BMJ 2017; 358 doi: (Published 18 August 2017) Cite this as: BMJ 2017;358:j3905
  1. Sophie Cousins, journalist, Paris
  1. sophcousins{at}

Complete eradication of the virus may be impossible. Some scientists think oncological treatments may show the way to a functional cure for HIV. Sophie Cousins reports

A cure for HIV has been sought since the start of the epidemic in the 1980s, and now some scientists are looking to immunoboosting therapies used in cancer treatment to try to keep HIV at bay, a theme of the International AIDS Society conference on HIV science held in July.

The development of effective and affordable antiretroviral therapy (ART) has saved millions of lives, and people with HIV now have a normal life expectancy. A recent report from UNAIDS found that for the first time more than half of the 46.7 million people worldwide with HIV have access to ART.

But 17.2 million people lack treatment, and incidence is not decreasing fast enough to meet the sustainable development goal of an end to the epidemic by 2030.1 Over the past decade a handful of cases have attracted international attention, bringing hope that a cure might be possible.

Berlin and Boston

The “Berlin patient,” Timothy Brown, is considered the only person to have been clinically cured of HIV infection—that is, the virus was completely eradicated from his body—after being given bone marrow transplants for blood cancer in 2007 and 2008.

Two unnamed men from Boston received bone marrow stem cell transplants, one in 2008 and the other in 2010, and tried stopping ART. But the virus soon re-emerged, indicating that keeping HIV at bay without treatment is difficult if even a small amount of virus remains in the body.

“Attempts to completely eradicate the virus have been unsuccessful. It is at worst impossible and at best it can happen only in very …

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