HIV Survivors Hold Key To Cure?

aids research graphic AP

Crispin Hollings feared he wouldn't live to be 40 after being diagnosed with HIV. But 13 years later CBS News Correspondent Elizabeth Kaledin reports that he's never been sick and he's never needed drugs.

Hollings says, "I am always constantly counting my blessings that I am in the boat that I am."

Hollings is what's known as a "non-progressor", someone whose immune system can fend off the virus all by itself. He, and 1 to 2 percent of the HIV infected population like him, have been the focus of intense study for a decade. Researchers racing to tap into the secret of their survival.

Now there's debate about whether that secret has been unlocked.

"We believe a big part of the mystery is solved," says Dr. David Ho.

Dr. Ho and colleagues say they've found a protein shared by non-progressors they studied.

Ho, Director of the Aaron Diamond Aids Research Foundation explains, "We found the identity of an anti-HIV factor that had been elusive for so long."

Using new technology, researchers can actually see images of proteins in the blood. One protein, called alpha defensin and characterized by peaks, consistently appears in the non-progressors.

Even the untrained eye can see that this particular protein is different from the other four.

The discovery could be crucial in the development of new aids treatments.

Dr. Jay Levy, and AIDS expert at the University of California San Francisco says, "I am convinced that nature is telling us how we can control HIV both in therapy and if we can induce this with a vaccine, that would be fantastic."

The problem is Dr. Jay Levy, who first discovered a unique immune system in non-progressors, is not convinced alpha defensins are the answer. Because Dr. Ho's group looked at only 3 patients, Levy believes the finding is premature.

Explains Levy, "Further work by other groups will decide how important the defensins are clinically."

Even if alpha defensins are not the reason some can live with HIV for decades, all sides of this debate agree: The future of conquering HIV lies in those who have conquered it naturally.

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