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DBL%20Hendrix%20small.png College chemistry, 1983

Derek Lowe The 2002 Model

Dbl%20new%20portrait%20B%26W.png After 10 years of blogging. . .

Derek Lowe, an Arkansan by birth, got his BA from Hendrix College and his PhD in organic chemistry from Duke before spending time in Germany on a Humboldt Fellowship on his post-doc. He's worked for several major pharmaceutical companies since 1989 on drug discovery projects against schizophrenia, Alzheimer's, diabetes, osteoporosis and other diseases. To contact Derek email him directly: derekb.lowe@gmail.com Twitter: Dereklowe

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November 14, 2005

One Darn Miracle After Another

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Posted by Derek

Andrew Stimpson isn't a scientist. If he were, he might have heard the line about extraordinary claims requiring extraordinary evidence. And his claim is indeed extraordinary - he says that he has managed to clear HIV from his system without therapy. Well, other than vitamins, don't you know - and if he says that he got them from Matthias Rath, I'm going to have to go lie down for a while.

This story has generated all sorts of irresponsibly breathless headlines, but when you read the stories underneath them you find that there's not much behind it. Stimpson received a positive HIV diagnosis on the basis of two antibody tests in 2002. Near the end of 2003, he was found to be negative, and was asked to repeat the test to confirm it. He refused, and sued the British health trust that did the testing.

Update: Press reports disagree about this. Some have the story as above, and others say that Stimpson tested negative on several occasions during 2002 and 2003. His initial postive tests showed what is being described as "an extremely low viral load."

Here's where things get messy. Stimpson appears to have sued because he felt that the original tests were in error. (The agency naturally stood by both its positive results). When no money was forthcoming, he then seems to have gone to a couple of the British tabloids with his miracle recovery story: ". . .I am just one person who managed to control (HIV), to survive from it and to get rid of it from my body", he's quoted as saying, which is an interesting statement from someone who was previously claiming not to be infected at all. Update: Stimpson eventually received a letter from the National Health Service calling his HIV-negative status "exceptional and medically remarkable", so he at least didn't come by his miracle-recovery story alone.

Stimpson hasn't been tested again, and doesn't seem to be available at the moment. I am not inclined to believe any claim such as his, to put it mildly, until he's been poked and prodded from every angle - to put it mildly. You would think that he might wish to help other HIV sufferers if he really has reversed the disease, wouldn't you? The article link above quotes the head of a charity in England as saying "The answer may turn out to be very complex. We must not jump to conclusions." Actually, I'm close to jumping to the conclusion that the answer might be rather simple.

Update: Press reports also disagree - markedly - about Stimpson's willingness to undergo further tests. My final sentence isn't meant to suggest some complex biochemical rationale. I'm thinking that the chances are best that the first positive results were in error - after all, their false-positive rate is surely much higher than the spontaneous-clearance-of-HIV rate. The health agency that tested him, though, might well prefer to treat this as an amazing medical anomaly rather than as a botched test. And given that he wasn't able to collect damages, it became in Andrew Stimpson's financial interest to go with that explanation as well, selling his story to the British tabloids for an undisclosed amount.

In the end, I agree with this quote, from the Nature.com news item on this story: ""If it is real, it's very interesting," says Jonathan Weber, an expert on infectious diseases at Imperial College London. But he cautions that the most likely scenario based on the current evidence is "either a false positive [in 2002], or he's still infected".

Comments (10) + TrackBacks (2) | Category: Infectious Diseases


COMMENTS

1. ctl on November 15, 2005 11:18 AM writes...

"Actually, I'm close to jumping to the conclusion that the answer might be rather simple."

Would you mind connecting the dots for those of us who don't spend our working lives in the medical field?

Just a bad test result either the first two times or the last time? What's the simple, obvious solution? (Since he's not the one making up the test results, it can't be that that he's lying, right?)

Permalink to Comment

2. Gyan on November 15, 2005 12:48 PM writes...

He was tested positive twice, in 2002. He, then tested negative four times. He's agreed to undergo further testing.

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3. R on November 15, 2005 1:15 PM writes...

What about his HIV positive lover? This Stimpson guy said he gave up having protected sex with his gay lover the moment he found out he was HIV positive.

So even if Stimpson were originally misdiagnosed, then a year or so later after some hard-core gay bareback sex with his HIV positive lover...then it's easy to believe that Stimpson now SHOULD have the HIV?

Still though, he doesn't.

What gives?

Permalink to Comment

4. jim on November 15, 2005 2:32 PM writes...

R,
You're pathetic.

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5. DRogers on November 15, 2005 2:53 PM writes...

My interest in this case has less to do with the mildly sordid details (given the updates, the details seem to be in a period of rapid evolution), and more to do with how even major media outlets cover science, especially medical science. That a source as reputable as the Times of London starts their article with "A young British man thought to be the first person to have shaken off HIV..." demonstrates an irresponsible credulity, with the use of "thought to be [cured]" putting the assertion in the paper's own voice, as if it needs to be refuted, rather than proven in the first place.

You could chalk this up to my general crabbiness at how the media tends to report on science only when it edges close to an "oddity" report, but there's lives on the line here, and I would bet there's at least a few people out there chawing on Flintstones vitamins and tossing out the condoms after reading this happy news.

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6. Marc on November 15, 2005 5:31 PM writes...

I guess this will just give more ammunition to the vitamin peddlers. When the truth comes out, it will be buried on page 18 anyways.

The tinfoil hat people who claim that AIDS is a scare tactic by drug companies to generate revenues will have a field day with this story.

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7. John on November 16, 2005 12:01 PM writes...

I dunno...I'm about as skeptical as anyone, especially if its being reported by the British media. However, the facts that have been reported, if true, would indicate a miracle. After his positive diagnosis, he returned to a clinic once every two months for regular check-ups. Those visits included VIRAL LOAD TESTS. The viral load tests showed a low level of viremia in his blood, indicating that he had the virus in his system, along with the HIV antibodies. I don't know how the skeptics can say a false-positive is the most likely scenario. Subsequent viral load tests, during the progression of his illness, showed the level of virus in his system to be undetectable, which caused his doctors to request another series of ELISA and Western Blot tests. They showed to be negative, 14 months after his initial diagnosis.

I'm a believer in "healthy skepticism". More tests are definitely needed, but there is reason for hope here, given the facts presented. To deny the possibility that his body mounted a successful immune response to the virus is to deny that a vaccine is possible. And I find the fatalism of some members of the scientific community regarding HIV disgusting. There IS a cure to this disease out there somewhere. Andrew just might demonstrate to us that nature beat billions of dollars of research to the punch!

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8. Brad on November 16, 2005 12:43 PM writes...

My optimism about this case is fading fast. Planet Out is reporting that he has a publicity agent now. Why would someone in his situation feel the need to get a publicity agent?

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9. DaveyBoy on November 16, 2005 9:23 PM writes...

If his body cured itself of HIV, I hope doctors can figure out how it was done as he has no idea. I am wondering if maybe his HIV testing results simply got mixed up at the lab or maybe a "false positive"? It's happened before...

I hope he will agree to further tests to figure out how this happened, my son's future (and millions of others, possibly a billion over the next 100 years) may just depend on a cure for HIV/AIDS as his mother and I have AIDS :(

If his body's genetic material contains infomation that we could harness to fight HIV in others (or at least help with a vaccine), should he be forced to go through vigoruos testing? If he believes that he was cured of having HIV for real, why doesn't he just say poke and prod me for awhile to see what you can find out? I would...

This could also be a hoax to somehow disprove that HIV/AIDS exists or is a health threat (there are many AIDS dissidents out there). Maybe a media stunt? I am just too damn cynical (tired of false hopes too) and skeptical!

Permalink to Comment

10. Gus Cairns on December 15, 2005 6:06 AM writes...

Dear all,

I've just come across this Blog. I'm a reporter on HIV and AIDS issues and know Stimpson's physician.

You may want to read my story on Gay.com about the case.

It's at http://uk.gay.com/article/4172

In case you can't get it (Gay.com is blocked by a lot of work computers!), I've copied it below.

Basically Stimpson probably never was positive: there is however a much more convincing case of a patient who sero-reverted (became HIV positive then negative) from Israel.

This story is at http://uk.gay.com/article/3435

Gus

HIV ‘miracle man’ may have fought off an infection
Gus Cairns
www.guscairns.com
23 November, 2005
more articles by Gus Cairns

Andrew Stimpson, the man who recently claimed he had been ‘cured’ of HIV, may have had a “near miss” with the virus, his doctor revealed on Saturday.

Dr Anton Pozniak, Andrew Stimpson’s physician, told the European AIDS Conference in Dublin: “My personal belief is that this man did not develop ‘established’ HIV infection.”

Dr Pozniak said: “I am presenting the facts of the case to the scientific community so they can make up their own minds.”

When questioned as to whether by doing so he was breaking Stimpson’s medical confidentiality, he said that Stimpson had done that first by taking his case to the tabloids.

Pozniak said Stimpson has presented in July 2002 with swollen lymph glands and fluey symptoms. He was tested at the clinic by two different methods; one test showed him positive and the other negative. A repeat test at the beginning of August showed the same pattern.

By August 20th, when he gave a blood sample, both tests were positive.
At this point his blood was sent to a reference laboratory for a detailed analysis and what came back was very puzzling indeed.

These detailed antibody tests don’t just detect the body’s reaction to the whole HIV virus. They analyse the reaction and pick out immune responses to different parts of HIV – the ‘knobs’ on its surface, the viral shell, the core inside that contains its genes, and so on.
As an infection progresses, the body slowly develops immune reactions to these different viral pieces, usually in a particular sequence.

But Stimpson’s profile looked odd. His blood had reactions to bits of HIV characteristic of an established infection – but lacked reactions typically seen earlier.

His viral load was also tested – and came back at the very low figure of 137. This is so low it could even be a laboratory mistake, picking up genetic background noise and treating it as if it was HIV.

Since that date, August 2002, Stimpson never again had a positive HIV antibody test or a detectable viral load.

Pozniak said there were three possibilities. The one he favoured was that Stimpson had had a near miss with HIV. It had got into his system and nearly established an infection but his body had fought the infection off. The August 2002 test caught him in the process of doing that.

Or he never had HIV at all. Occasionally, viral infections and other illnesses (malaria is an example) can cause immune reactions that look like a positive HIV test. But they would be most unlikely to give a detailed reaction to different bits of HIV similar to the one Stimpson had.

And a third possibility is that the antibodies to HIV picked up in his blood didn’t belong to him – they had got into his system from someone he had sex with who was positive. This happens most frequently in babies, where HIV negative babies test ‘positive’ in the first few months of life because they have antibodies from their mum circulating in their blood.

So it looks as if Stimpson may be lucky, not by ‘curing’ himself of established HIV infection, but by fighting it off from the start.

It’s not a well known fact, but there are a lot of so-called ‘exposed seronegatives’ walking around. These are people who don’t test HIV positive but whose body reacts to bits of HIV in a way that makes it clear they’ve come into contact with the virus at some time in the past and may have fought off an infection – without ever realising it.

Two studies last year found evidence that a lot of partners of people with HIV have this status. In one presented at the 2004 Bangkok World AIDS Conference, Dr Tuofu Zhu found that some long-term gay men who are partners of people with HIV in fact had tiny amounts of HIV – undetectable by normal means – in their body, even though they test HIV negative. They have effectively contained an infection.

The only difference between them and Stimpson is he may have been caught in the act of doing it.

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TRACKBACKS

Listed below are links to weblogs that reference One Darn Miracle After Another:

It's worth a look, especially the link to Derek Lowe, who wrote a provocative post questioning Stimpson's motives. [Read More]

Tracked on November 16, 2005 12:44 PM

HIV news roundup from Misty Media Sex Blog
A few developments to do with HIV and AIDS recently: HIV and avian flu. There are concerns that AIDS may help spread bird flu, particularly in Africa. Since HIV screws up the immune system, it could make people more vulnerable to other viruses... [Read More]

Tracked on November 20, 2005 10:10 AM


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