HIV ‘cure’ based on one patient? Here’s what you need to know

Kevin Lomangino is the managing editor of HealthNewsReview.org. He tweets as @KLomangino.

“Cure” is one of the seven words we think you should avoid in health care journalism.

Stories from The Guardian and other news outlets demonstrate why this term shouldn’t be thrown around carelessly.

Their blaring headlines today raise hope that a cancer drug could “cure” HIV infection — a global scourge affecting millions.

But this potential cure is based on results from just a single man whose reservoir of dormant HIV-infected cells went down after treatment with the cancer drug nivolumab.

Further down in the story we learn that this man has only been followed for about four months, and there’s no telling if his reservoir of infected cells might increase again.

We also learn that a second man with HIV saw no benefit from the drug.

Then the only quoted source who’s not affiliated with the study says that “talks of cure are premature.”

One thing we don’t learn from The Guardian story is this: three out of the seven study authors have received payments from Bristol Myers Squibb, which makes nivolumab.

Today is World AIDS Day, a day when the global community is urged to show support for people living with HIV.

Hyped headlines touting a possible cure based on one patient aren’t supportive of patients at all. They tease false hope that ultimately can hurt the people who are suffering.

Let’s be clear: this was an intriguing and possibly important observation about one man’s lab test results — the headlines should have stuck to that.

There will be plenty of time to praise a “cure” — if that’s what it turns out to be — once the evidence is in.

You might also like

Comments

We Welcome Comments. But please note: We will delete comments left by anyone who doesn’t leave an actual first and last name and an actual email address.

We will delete comments that include personal attacks, unfounded allegations, unverified facts, product pitches, or profanity. We will also end any thread of repetitive comments. Comments should primarily discuss the quality (or lack thereof) in journalism or other media messages about health and medicine. This is not intended to be a forum for definitive discussions about medicine or science. Nor is it a forum to share your personal story about a disease or treatment -- your comment must relate to media messages about health care. If your comment doesn't adhere to these policies, we won't post it. Questions? Please see more on our comments policy.