Donor 45: The weird world of AIDS "non-progressors"


Last week, news broke that antibodies discovered in a man known only as Donor 45 could, potentially, be used to create a vaccine to protect against HIV/AIDS.

Who is Donor 45? He's a 65-year-old gay, African-American man who has been living with HIV (but healthy) for 20 years. More importantly, he's part of a small group of people who are infected with HIV, but whose bodies have managed to naturally stave off symptoms of the illness. In some cases, these people, called long-term non-progressors, even end up with virus levels so low as to be nearly undetectable.

Fascinatingly, Donor 45 is NOT one of those patients. His viral load is similar to that of people who get sick. That's because his immune system doesn't destroy HIV. Instead, it produces antibodies that prevent HIV from invading his cells.

All people infected with HIV produce antibodies in response to the infection. What's different is that Donor 45's antibodies actually work. For reasons that aren't clearly understood, most antibodies against HIV either aren't effective at all, or are only effective against certain strains—not terribly useful with a virus that mutates as frequently as HIV does. Donor 45's are capable of controlling as much as 91% of HIV strains. So he stays healthy, even while the virus continues to live in his body. People like Donor 46 can still infect others, but they, themselves, might live entirely normal lifespans without significant illness.

Some good links to read more about non-progressors:

Image courtesy Flickr user TimoStudios via CC


    1. How is it that William Gibson is so awesome? I’m going to go reread Virtual Light right now.

    2. IIRC, wasn’t Shapely killed because somebody thought that AIDS shouldn’t be cured. Probably best to keep this person anonymous, considering all the “God hates Fags” idiots out there. Sad that there are people who would wish a slow painful death such as AIDS can cause, just because they do not agree with their sexual identity. Not mention anybody else who gets AIDS. But to a lot of haters, AIDS = Gay.

      1. Those haters include blood banks, at least where I live. If you’re male and have had sex with another man even once in your entire life, you’re not allowed to donate blood because you’re supposedly an AIDS risk.

        1. OTOH there’s folks like my wife, who died from Hep-C 20 years after receiving tainted transfusions during a difficult birthing. Even with today’s testing (AHCV, RIBA, etc.) and decades of screening experience there’s still a small chance of Hep-C hiding in a transfusion. For her survivors, there’s no such thing as too much caution in blood supply screening. While some may hate, I think the guidelines are more about caution. (Visiting the UK is hardly a hot-button moral issue, but weighed against the risk of CJD…)

          @seen2much: “Shapely’s murder, some said sacrifice, had taken place in Salt Lake City. His seven killers, heavily armed fundamentalists, members of a white racist sect…had remained silent during the trial, their leader stating only that the disease was God’s vengeance on sinners and the unclean.”

  1. i’m very excited about the research being put into this, but i do want to say that there are tens of thousands of seropositive people living normal and healthy lives right now. with the current level of HIV treatment, we’re looking at an indefinitely long lifespan. in fact, geriatric issues are coming into play now that the HIV population is aging and doing it healthily.

    it’s still an epidemic that needs much more attention, but it’s not the death sentence or exile into sickness that it once was

  2. Here’s hoping that unlike Henrietta Lacks, this guy gets the chance to reap some of the benefit of what his body does for science.

    1. Doesn’t that also mean these folks can spread HIV?

      In contrast to the millions of other people who have it and can also transmit it?

  3. Except that he isn’t completely resistant. The nightmarish thing about HIV is that it mutates continuously. Here’s hoping that it doesn’t win in the end.

  4. Does this mean Magic Johnson is a non-progressor? Seems like he was diagnosed as being HIV-positive an eon ago but still seems to be living a normal, healthy life.

    A quick google answered my own question. Guess so.

    1. Except for the fact his genes most likely won’t get passed on unless they can remove the viral load from donated sperm without damage to the cells.

      Can they?

      1. If he’s gay there’s a pretty high chance they wouldn’t have been passed on anyway.

  5. I work at a non-profit HIV clinic and we have a client who is a non-progressor. Been positive since 1989, still has a viral load below 500 copies/mil. (when people first get infected or start to develop AIDS, they often have viral loads in the millions). He has been participating in research for the past 10 years, and i always hoped that the science could channel these anomalies into something resembling an effective treatment.

    However: every vaccine-related breakthrough that has gone to a clinical trial in humans, that i can remember, has resulted in making individuals MORE susceptible to the HIV virus. I would love to see a breakthrough, but we have been disappointed many times before…

    1. I am one of those people. I have been HIV+ for 14 years now, I’ve never had to take any medication nor have I ever gotten sick.

      My doctor says there’s a larger than normal percentage of Scandinavians who share this attribute.

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