Incredible as it may seem, the HIV virus could be used to treat a severe genetic disorder – at least, it has twice already. The results of the most recent study, where French scientists treated a young man with beta-thalassemia, a life-threatening form of anemia, with a “defanged” version of the AIDS virus, indicate that this treatment may have wide applicability, although of course after two tests it’s hard to say.
Beta-thalassemia primarily affects people of Mediterranean, Middle Eastern, South Asian, Southeast Asian and Chinese descent, and about 60,000 children are diagnosed with it worldwide each year. Patients are usually treated with numerous blood transfusions, although that leads to an iron build-up that can damage organs. The disease can also be cured by bone marrow transplants, but only if an appropriate donor can be found.
The HIV virus, however, seems to be effective – the man who was treated in the most recent study has been stable for 22 months, and has stopped receiving blood transfusions. The team has even been able to remove much of the iron that has built up over the years. “He is happy to have a normal life back, and for the first time has a full-time job in a main restaurant in Paris,” Dr. Francoise Bernaudin, the clinical hematologist who has been monitoring his condition, said, according to the LA Times.
Other researchers say that the results could have been a lucky accident, and we’ll certainly have to see – the French scientists who performed the last study have enrolled another 10 patients, which may tell us more definitively whether this is a viable cure for genetic blood disorders. But the idea that the HIV virus could be used to treat other diseases is certainly intriguing – although it can’t change the devastation that HIV/AIDS causes worldwide.
Photo from Wikimedia Commons.