She's Been Dubbed the 'Esperanza Patient,' Fittingly

Woman's own immune system may have cured her of HIV
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Nov 16, 2021 9:03 AM CST
She May Be Second in World to Cure Herself of HIV
A 3D illustration of the HIV virus.   (Getty Images)

She couldn't come from a more fitting place: A woman now dubbed the "Esperanza patient" after her hometown of Esperanza, Argentina, has become the second in the world to seemingly be cured of HIV by her own immune system; "esperanza" translates to hope. More on the discovery, published Monday in the Annals of Internal Medicine:

  • Her medical history: The 30-year-old woman received her HIV diagnosis in 2013 but never displayed signs of the illness, though the presence of antibodies indicated she had been infected. In 2017 researchers in Argentina and in Massachusetts began analyzing her blood. In 2019 she gave birth to an HIV-negative baby, and her placenta provided another wealth of evidence. As STAT News explains, "even though it’s an organ of the fetus, it’s loaded with maternal immune cells—a target-rich environment to mine for stealth viruses."
  • The search for HIV in her body: NBC News reports the team co-led by Boston-based viral immunologist Dr. Xu Yu looked high and low for any sign of viable HIV—meaning intact virus that can replicate—an effort that involved an analysis of 1.2 billion of her blood cells and 500 million placenta-tissue cells. "All they could find were seven defective proviruses," per CNN.

  • But how? Researchers don't really know, but "we think it's a combination of different immune mechanisms—cytotoxic T cells are likely involved, innate immune mechanism may also have contributed," Yu wrote. "This is really the miracle of the human immune system that did it," she added.
  • Once before? As NBC News explains, Yu also authored an August 2020 study that looked at 64 "elite controllers" of HIV—people whose immune systems are able to curtail the virus' ability to replicate; STAT reports about 0.5% of HIV patients fall into this group. One of those 64, a 67-year-old California woman named Loreen Willenberg, seemed to have no intact virus in her body—possibly making her the first known person to have "cured" herself.
  • From the Esperanza patient: She gives this quote to NBC News: "I have a healthy family. I don’t have to medicate, and I live as though nothing has happened. This already is a privilege."
(A so-called "sterilizing cure" has previously only been seen in two patients who underwent bone marrow transplants—not an approach that can be used as a general treatment. The first of those patients died last September.)

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