(NEW YORK) — One of only five people in the world to achieve full remission of HIV is stepping forward to share his story in an ABC broadcast exclusive.
Paul Edmonds’ journey into medical history began decades ago. He was diagnosed with AIDS in 1988 — a time when it was a potential death sentence. Thanks to his own perseverance and advances in treatment, he survived — even thrived — after his diagnosis.
Edmonds met his future husband Arnie House and convinced him to be tested. House also was HIV positive. As years past, better antiretroviral treatments brought both of their HIV levels to undetectable, which means the virus was untransmissable.
But for Edmonds, another diagnosis was looming. In 2018, he learned he had leukemia. Although his heart sank, Edmonds told ABC News’ Juju Chang, “I wasn’t ready to die.”
Edmonds and House sought care at City of Hope Medical Center in California. There, while undergoing treatment for leukemia, Edmonds’ doctors saw a unique opportunity to try to cure him of his HIV, too. After chemotherapy, Edmonds received a stem cell transplant from a donor with a mutation that makes them resistant to HIV. Stem cell transplants carry a significant risk in themselves, as they must be preceded by wiping out the whole immune system. During this time, which can be months, patients have to stay in protected areas of the hospital to reduce the risk of life-threatening infections.
“It’s a very rare mutation. It exists in roughly 1% of the population. So it’s not, it’s not something we find very commonly,” said Edmonds’ physician, Dr. Jana Dickter, City of Hope associate clinical professor in the Division of Infectious Diseases, Department of Medicine.
The transplant worked. Not only did Edmonds go into remission for his cancer, he also became the fifth person ever to go into remission from HIV. Now, four years after his transplant and two years after doctors took him off HIV medications, the virus shows no signs of coming back.
“We can’t find evidence of replicating HIV in his system,” Dickter said. “It’s been really amazing. It’s been such a journey.”
Dickter and her colleagues announced the details of Edmonds’ case in July 2022, but he was known anonymously as the “City of Hope patient” at the time. Now, he is stepping out of the shadows. He and his husband sat down with ABC’s Chang for an in-depth interview in their California home.
Edmonds said he still struggles to come to terms with being cured after living with HIV for more than three decades and after watching so many of his friends die of AIDS in the 1980s and 1990s.
“I was incredibly grateful. I’m grateful to be alive. I was grateful there was a donor,” he said.
House said he was thrilled when Edmonds’ HIV went into remission.
“I was so happy for him. Because it was like a liberation for me. That he didn’t have to take his HIV medications anymore – it was wonderful,” House said.
There is still no cure for most of the 1.2 million Americans living with HIV today. Rare cures happen only among people with HIV who are also diagnosed with certain types of cancer, and subsequently receive the unique stem cell transplant that cures their cancer and HIV simultaneously.
But scientists say Edmonds’ story is helping them get one step closer. His story is unique because his treatment was less medically intensive than prior cases, giving scientists hope that the procedure he received could be applicable to a wider range of HIV patients with cancer who are aging. At 66, Edmonds is the oldest person to be cured of HIV — and he had been living with HIV the longest.
Edmonds was able to receive a newer, less intensive chemotherapy regimen that City of Hope helped develop for older patients, and his transplant had only mild medical complications, according to Dr. Ahmed M. Aribi, assistant professor with City of Hope’s Division of Leukemia, Department of Hematology & Hematopoietic Cell Transplantation.
Although scientists are still searching for an HIV cure, significant medical advances mean people living with HIV are living longer and healthier lives. In fact, doctors say, modern medication is so effective that many people with HIV can lower the amount of virus in their blood to the point where it is impossible to pass the virus on to others, even after unprotected sex and other high-risk exposures.
Edmonds and House both urged everyone to get tested for HIV, because knowing your status can save a life. They said ignorance is the only killer.
“We have to go out, get tested. It’s so easy to be able to get put on medications. Have yourself followed by a doctor like me,” House said.
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