UMass researcher played key role in child cured of HIV

By Mitchell Scuzzarella

For the first time, a baby born with HIV was effectively cured through treatment.

Taylor C. Snow/Collegian

One of the researchers who worked on this study was Dr. Katherine Luzuriaga, an immunologist at the University of Massachusetts Medical School in Worcester.

The Mississippi child was treated with three separate antiretroviral drugs early after her birth according to an article released by CNN. After two years, the baby was deemed “functionally cured,” with levels of the virus in the child’s blood too low for standard tests to detect.

The lead author of the report, Dr. Deborah Persaud, compares the discovery to the case of Timothy Ray Brown, a Berlin man who was effectively cured of HIV after a blood stem-cell transplant was performed.

Luzuriaga was an acting member of the team that effectively cured the baby. According to an article from the Boston Globe, Luzuriaga was responsible for analyzing the baby’s blood for traces of the virus.

Luzuriaga, who earned her M.D from Tufts University School of Medicine, was contacted by researcher Dr. Hannah Gay, who according to the New York Times was responsible for beginning the three-drug treatment on the baby. When the tests for the child continued to come back with undetectable viral levels, Gay sought Luzuriaga, Persaud, and other researchers who were involved in a project to document pediatric cures for the disease.

Supported by the American Foundation for AIDS Research, amfAR, the researchers put the baby through several tests for the virus, and while they did find some genetic viral material, the virus remained unable to replicate.

However, according to Luzuriaga it is imperative that research continues and that the virus levels in the child’s body be monitored.

“We’re calling this a functional cure, rather than a complete cure, because when we do ultrasensitive tests, we’re detecting, on occasion, very low levels of viral DNA in [the child’s] cells,” Luzuriaga said to the Boston Globe.

According to the Boston Globe, Luzuriaga and the researchers hope that the child’s treatment prevented reservoirs of dormant viral cells from forming in the body. These dormant cells are often responsible for patients having recurrence of the virus upon stopping conventional anti-retroviral treatment.

The New York Times reported that there are plans repeat the experiment with other babies to study if the treatment could be repeated in other babies. In developing countries, treatments like the one in Mississippi could lead to a cost-effective cure for babies who would only require treatment for the first year or two of their lives.

According to Dr. Rowena Johnston, director of research at amfAR, this treatment could spare a child “a lifetime of anti-retroviral therapy.”

Mitch Scuzzarella can be reached at [email protected]