What Does the New HIV ‘Cure’ Mean for Black People?

A woman uses the Oraquick rapid HIV testing device at the South Brooklyn Health Center Feb. 7, 2006, in New York City.
Photo: Spencer Platt (Getty Images)

Just days ago, there was explosive, positive news on the HIV/AIDS front. Doctors confirmed that another person has been cured of HIV, only the second time this has happened since the virus reared its ugly head more than 37 years ago.

Although researchers are officially calling the event “long term remission”—the “London patient,” as he is known, has been in remission for a year and a half—it is indeed a thrilling breakthrough, especially since the “Berlin patient” (now identified as Timothy Brown), was cured using a similar transplant more than a decade ago.

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The L.A. Times reports on the specifics of the case, which involved a bone marrow transplant to treat co-morbid cancer:

The London patient, infected with HIV and suffering from Hodgkin’s lymphoma, received bone marrow cells from a donor who had a malfunctioning CCR5 gene as part of his cancer treatment. The gene is known to create a protein that is crucial for HIV to invade blood cells. Brown had also received a transplant without functioning CCR5 genes.

A second set of “Boston patients,” who received stem cell transplants with functioning CCR5 genes, also experienced marked reductions in the reservoir of HIV in their cells — and were able to go without treatment for months, showing that the transplant itself played a role in knocking back the virus. But their temporary results also suggested that the aberrant gene was necessary for a sustained cure.

Despite efforts to replicate the remarkable Berlin results, researchers had failed for a decade—in part because the possibility of doing such transplants is rare.

“I think it’s a really, really exciting breakthrough, to be able to finally replicate the first known cure,” Raniyah Copeland, President and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute, told The Root. “It doesn’t mean [a cure for all] tomorrow, but it does mean that we’re closer than we’ve ever been before.”

Raniyah Copeland, President and CEO of the Black AIDS Institute
Photo: Courtesy BAI
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Copeland, the 34-year-old newly minted head of BAI (she took the post on Jan. 1), also cautions that the true end of HIV—especially for black folks—still lay with prevention and accessing the tools that have been developed in the last three decades. Black communities in particular, which are still being infected and dying at wildly disproportionate rates, need to utilize the resources already available, which have taken HIV from a deadly to a chronic disease.

“So we already have all of these amazing tools that could theoretically end HIV,” notes Copeland. “We have this amazing technology where we’re able to identify when new HIV cases are happening. We have pre-exposure prophylaxis (PrEP), so when people are HIV-negative, they are able to take a daily pill and stop acquisition, but we still have HIV infections.”

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“We know that black people don’t achieve viral suppression in the way our other counterparts do, so ... we have to make sure we do the other work to ensure that the communities that need these resources are receiving them,” Copeland continues. “This is not the end, but it’s an important step in getting there.”

We know that the “Berlin patient” and the “London patient” received their stem cell transplants from a donor of Northern European descent with an aberrant CCR5 gene. Copeland says she doesn’t think ethnicity per se means a whole lot in terms of the science of a cure but does underscore that black folks need to be involved in clinical research.

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“We have to be engaged so that when breakthroughs are happening, we can see them in our community as well. There’s this one kind of trait, a certain receptor that is found in the Euro line of descent,” confirms Copeland. “So that’s important that we know that there are different genetic differences and mutations that happen; and I think that what it means is that it’s really important that people who are heavily impacted by HIV are taking part in clinical trials and in research so that we can see what this means for all communities.”

And in the meantime, Copeland stresses that we need to hold the feet of those who hold the keys to research funds to the fire, including President Donald Trump, who announced in his most recent State of the Union that he was putting forth a strategy to end HIV in the U.S. in 10 years.

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“We’re excited to hear that folks are listening to the science. We’ve been saying that we can end HIV for years now, so we’re excited that there is some support around that,” Copeland said. “But that means that we can’t give up, particularly when it comes to research. We have to ensure that there’s important and critical funding for HIV research so that we can find a cure, [or] a vaccine.”

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About the author

Angela Helm

Ms. Bronner Helm is a Contributing Editor at The Root. Mouthy Black Girl. Rosalynn Carter Mental Health Fellow. Shea Butter Feminist. Virgo Sun, Aries Moon.