Hopes rise for disease-free world by 2100

Viral: Around 37 million people are infected with HIV globally.

A British man has become the second person in the world to be cleared of HIV. Not long ago this killer virus was incurable. How long before disease itself becomes a thing of the past?

“There is no virus there that we can measure. We can’t detect anything.” This was the outcome Professor Ravindra Gupta could scarcely dare to hope for.

His patient, a man in London, has become the second person ever to have been “functionally cured” of the HIV virus after receiving a stem cell transplant.

The man was being treated for cancer in 2016 when doctors decided to try the radical treatment. He underwent an aggressive course of chemotherapy that wiped out his immune system, which was then replaced with cells from a healthy donor.

In this case, the donor also carried a rare mutation that made them immune to the HIV virus. Almost three years later, the London patient is in remission from cancer and the HIV virus is “undetectable”.

Is this a miracle cure? Gupta has reservations.

He says the treatment is too risky to use in patients who are otherwise well.

In 2008, the gene therapy was first used successfully on a patient named Timothy Brown, who was also suffering from cancer, in Berlin. He is still HIV-free.

However, in eight other cases where it was tried, the patients died of complications from the transplant or cancer relapses.

For most HIV patients, the safest course of action is still to keep using antiretroviral drugs, which can keep the virus at bay and allow them to live a normal life.

Nevertheless, the latest case is a major step on the way to a cure for a disease that has killed 35 million people worldwide.

“We have shown that the Berlin patient was not an anomaly,” said Gupta.

Mark Zuckerberg wants to go further. He believes that “it’s possible to cure, prevent or manage all diseases by the end of the century.”

The Facebook founder and his wife Priscilla Chan are planning to invest $3 billion (£2.27 billion) over 10 years to help cure the world’s diseases.

According to Zuckerberg, the research will target four types of diseases that cause the majority of deaths: heart disease, cancer, neurological diseases and infectious diseases. These illnesses account for 61% of human deaths.

An apple a day

Can we cure all diseases by 2100? As Zuckerberg says, medicine has been a modern science for barely more than 100 years. In that time, we have eradicated smallpox and polio, discovered antibiotics, and made huge advances in cancer diagnosis and treatment. Will our progress continue to speed up?

Or will we face new challenges? Antibiotic-resistant superbugs pose a growing threat. Even if science does succeed, will everyone around the world have access to the cures? Despite medication to manage HIV being widely available in wealthy Western nations, 940,000 died of the disease worldwide in 2017.

You Decide

  1. Will we ever wipe out all disease?
  2. Would you like to live for 200 years?

Activities

  1. HIV is no longer the deadly disease it once was, thanks to modern medicine. Create a leaflet explaining what HIV is, facts about the disease and the effects of today’s treatments.
  2. If we could cure all diseases, should we? How would our societies support huge populations of elderly people? Would you, personally, want to live forever? Write a short essay considering these questions.

Some People Say...

“Cure sometimes, treat often, comfort always.”

Hippocrates

What do you think?

Q & A

What do we know?
The London patient underwent the stem cell transplant in May 2016 and came off antiretroviral drugs in September 2017. Since then, he has tested negative for HIV. He is the second patient to be “cured” of HIV after receiving a stem cell transplant. Timothy Ray Brown, known as the “Berlin patient”, was the first in 2008.
What do we not know?
Whether we will succeed in finding cures for most diseases by 2100. According to Francis S. Collins, the director of the US National Institutes of Health, “it’s a bold audacious goal, but I like audacious goals […] Developing cures for all diseases is certainly something that we could imagine happening in the course of this century.”

Word Watch

Stem cell
A cell with the special ability to turn into different types of specialised cells in the body. As they can divide over and over again to make new cells, stem cell transplants can help replace cells that have been damaged or killed.
Chemotherapy
A treatment used to treat cancer which targets cells in the body that grow quickly. It can have severe side effects as it affects the entire body.
Immune
In rare cases, some people are born immune to HIV because they have two mutated copies of the CCR5 receptor, which stops the HIV virus from infecting cells.
Gene therapy
An experimental technique that uses genes to prevent or treat disease. In this case, the gene mutations in the CCR5 receptors succeeded in ridding the patients of HIV.
Antiretroviral drugs
As HIV advances, it can develop into a dangerous condition called AIDS, which damages the immune system. Antiretroviral drugs can control HIV, giving patients a normal life expectancy, and even suppress it so much that carriers cannot transmit the virus.

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