IT’S an astonishing piece of good news, the kind of story that reminds us of the marvellous power of human ingenuity. A two and a half year old girl, born with HIV, has been “functionally cured”. If this discovery enables children born with HIV to lead healthy lives without the assistance of antiretrovirals, it will be one of the biggest breakthroughs in medical science since Edward Jenner pioneered the smallpox vaccine in 1796. The news will again silence those who defy progress, those who criticised the creation of the Large Hadron Collider or GM crops in the same manner as those who doubted Galileo when he declared that the world orbits the sun.
Such luddites are everywhere, and they are almost always wrong. Despite astounding developments in communication, for example, many believe that it only pushes us apart. But those who view scientific advancement with scepticism are failing to see the astounding developments and improvements in quality of life that human brilliance can bring.
The latest beneficiary of progress is a girl treated at the John Hopkins Children’s Centre in Baltimore, who was born HIV positive, initiated on antiretroviral therapy at 30 hours of age, and has been off medication for almost a year with no signs of infection.
Since its discovery in the 1980s, Aids, a horrible disease, has received more attention than any other in history – due to its high profile sufferers (like Freddie Mercury), and mass marketing campaigns. Fear spread as quickly as the illness, which was highly infectious, incurable, and one of the few diseases to affect the Western world as much as it did those in Africa far less able to deal with its consequences. But Stuart Derbyshire, reader in psychology at Birmingham University, points to the rapid medical advances – like the discovery that chemotherapy drug AZT could protect immune cells from attack by the virus – that meant Aids quickly transitioned from a death sentence to a still terrible but at least chronically manageable illness.
And this was far from the first time that medicine has invalidated a dogmatic belief about what the human body can do. In 1984, says Derbyshire, Barry Marshall swallowed a liquid containing the bacterium helicobacter that he had cultured from a stomach ulcer. He subsequently developed an ulcer himself, providing critical evidence that they could be caused by bacterium. Before his experiment, no-one believed that anything could survive in the ferociously acidic stomach. The discovery led to ulcers being treated with a simple course of antibiotics.
Many will recall the news last year of Timothy Ray Brown, who was cured of HIV after having a bone marrow transplant for his leukaemia – which some may argue takes the edge off Sunday’s stunning development. But where the John Hopkins case is of particular importance is in its cost and access implications. Just as certain cancer treatments are inaccessible to all but the most affluent, so giving bone marrow transplants to all would have been beyond the realm of possibility.
We need only look around to see that human ingenuity still achieves great things. During World War I, a New Zealand ear, nose and throat specialist started to develop facial surgery for soldiers with severe injuries. And eight years ago, Isabelle Dinoire became the first person to have a face transplant. In 1961, Yuri Gagarin was the first man in space, and 30 years later the Hubble telescope was sent into orbit, giving the world detailed images and a deep view into space and time. Global spending on research and development (R&D) has nearly doubled since the beginning of the 21st century, with the UK alone spending £26.4bn on R&D in 2010. This expenditure must continue. Researchers must keep pioneering, and the public must support their efforts.
The specialists behind the Aids miracle story have been quick to say it does not mean existing patients can come off their medication. But this is a giant leap giving researchers, and the public, hope. The belief that Aids would strike the human race down because we are unable to deal with the threat of nature has been dealt another blow. Another disease that we once believed would plague the human race is being conquered by human nature and ingenuity. Long may such progress continue.
Annabel Palmer is business features writer at City A.M.