In 1996, when I arrived at Massachusetts General Hospital (USA), people were dying of AIDS. The epidemic was at its height, there were no effective treatments and I wanted to reverse that situation. So I started working on HIV. Around 2009 we began to have better drugs and were able to turn it into a chronic disease. This was a great achievement, but though we could treat HIV better, we could not cure it. For the people who had the infection this was a serious limitation and for scientists a challenge, which I have been investigating ever since.
We have taken significant steps forward in this regard. Together with Dr María Salgado, last year we announced that the international consortium of which I am co-leader had achieved the second “cure” in the world of a person with HIV, the so-called London Patient. Suffering from cancer, he underwent a bone marrow stem cell transplant. The donor had the CCR5 Delta32 mutation, which acts as a natural protectant from HIV by preventing the virus from entering its target cells, CD4 T lymphocytes, a type of white blood cell. Only 1 % of Europe’s population present this protective mutation.
We are now investigating the possibility of using genetic engineering to extract stem cells from people with HIV, modifying them in the laboratory so that they cease to express the virus receptor, and subsequently reinfusing them into the patient’s blood. I am convinced that HIV will be cured thanks to the confluence of research being carried out in laboratories around the world.