In the 23 years since she was diagnosed with HIV, 61-year-old Loreen Willenberg of Sacramento, Calif., has never taken any drugs to restrain the virus. She has never shown symptoms or become ill from HIV or AIDS. She has experienced no drop in her CD4 T-cells, the immune cells targeted by HIV.
Note that if Loreen was perfectly healthy, without drugs, but her numbers were ‘bad’ (e.g. low CD4 count or high viral load) she would not be considered a Long Term Non-Progressor or Elite Controller…despite her good health.
A Sacramento woman is part of a rare population of people who are infected with HIV, but somehow keep the virus from damaging their immune system.
Scientists hope these HIV controllers hold the key to finding a cure.
In the world, 35 million people are living with HIV or AIDS. Most take a myriad of drugs to suppress the disease from wreaking havoc on their immune system.
Loreen Willenberg is one of those 35 million, but in the 23 years since she was diagnosed, she takes no drugs, has no symptoms, and has never been sick.
“In a clinical sense, I’m not progressing towards AIDS,” she said. “I’m not progressing towards the disease stage.”
Dr. Richard Pollard says she’s part of a small number of HIV patients—less than 1 percent—who have the virus, but can control its invasion of their bodies.
“Their body has such an effective way of reacting to the virus that it’s hard to even detect that they’re virus positive,” he said.
Researchers think it works like this:
HIV attacks CD4 T-cells, which are basically white blood cells that help your immune system. In most patients, HIV kills those T-cells and replicates itself, while overpowering another type of T-cell called CD8 cells. These are meant to fight off viral infection.
But in people like Loreen, those CD8 cells are particularly strong. They act like soldiers and regulate the infected CD4 cells. This keeps HIV from replicating and diminishing her immune system.
“I haven’t had a decline of CD4 cell count at all,and that’s pretty magnificent, and I’m very humbled by that,” she said.
Over the past decade, Loreen has participated in 13 studies. Researchers are trying to figure out why elite controllers are able to do what they do.
“Finding the answer to that might lead to other kinds of research to try to develop techniques to make someone mimic these elite controllers,” he said.
Pollard says studying elite controllers is just one avenue researchers are taking to stop the HIV-AIDS epidemic. Both he and Loreen hope they’ll see the day there’s a vaccine or even a cure for HIV.
“If that happens before I go, then i will have, then I know that I have lived a good life,” she said.
There are only 500 known elite controllers in the world.
At the age of 61, Loreen is going to college to major in bioethics. She’s stayed on top of the scientific studies she’s been a part of and served as an HIV advocate for years.