Four things you should know about the HIV "cure" before you get too excited

The baby might not even have been infected in the first place.

The story everyone is talking about today is the HIV "cure" - the Mississippi baby who, after being blasted with a cocktail of anti-viral drugs at birth, is now, at two years old, apparently virus-free. But when reading the euphoric news stories about it here, here and here, you should bear the following in mind:

1. The baby may not even have been infected in the first place

Here's a weird section in the NYT version of the story. Have a read of the following two paragraphs - are the doctors certain or uncertain that the baby was infected?

“The one uncertainty is really definitive evidence that the child was indeed infected,” said Dr. Daniel R. Kuritzkes, chief of infectious diseases at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston.

Dr. Persaud and some other outside scientists said they were certain the baby — whose name and gender were not disclosed — had been infected. There were five positive tests in the baby’s first month of life — four for viral RNA and one for DNA. And once the treatment started, the virus levels in the baby’s blood declined in the pattern characteristic of infected patients.

The tests are pretty good, but are not usually trusted as a basis for confirmed diagnosis at that early stage. It is normal practice to confirm positive tests at 6 weeks. But as this baby had already been treated by then, lowering its viral load (negative tests came back at 29 days), it would have been difficult to do this. There is a very small chance the baby was not infected.

The virus may not have yet taken a hold on the baby's cells in a permanent way. Here's the WSJ:

Cells in the baby "may have been infected—there was virus around," said Steven Deeks, an AIDS researcher at University of California at San Francisco. "But the cells being infected weren't the type that become long-lived reservoirs."

There is also a small chance the baby was immune to HIV anyway. Around 1 per cent of Caucasians in the US are naturally immune.

Now, these are small chances, but then this baby is an outlier. It was not part of a large study where such anomalies are ruled out. The scientists have said it is unlikely to be replicable. Any way you put it, the baby itself is an anomaly.

2. This "cure" has already been found, and has been used on newly-infected people since 1987. Even if the baby was infected, today's news would simply extend it to newborns.

Today's news applies only to babies. Newborns at that. And it's not really a new method - rather, it's the same idea as PEP: if you have only just been infected, you might avoid HIV if you are immediately given a large amount of anti-HIV drugs. What the scientists confirmed today is that, in terms of emergency treatment, newborns are the same as newly-infected people. 

Here's the NYT again:

“That goes along with the concept that, if you treat before the virus has had an opportunity to establish a large reservoir and before it can destroy the immune system, there’s a chance you can withdraw therapy and have no virus,” said Dr. Anthony S. Fauci, the director of the National Institute for Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

(Oh, and if you were wondering, someone has actually been cured of AIDs before. This was a man called Timothy Brown, a leukemia sufferer who received a bone-marrow transplant from a donor genetically resistant to HIV.)

3. This would not be breaking much ground in preventing HIV in newborns anyway, because we have a solution for that

In countries with access to top-notch medical care (ie western countries), the transference of HIV from mother to child is extremely rare. This is because mothers are treated with antiretroviral therapy during pregnancy - a very effective way of preventing HIV in newborns.

4. Newborns in countries without a solution for that probably wouldn't get this treatment anyway

In countries without access to top-notch medical care, there is no reason that this treatment would be available where antiretroviral pregnancy treatment isn't.

So what does the news mean? Well it means that a few babies in countries with access to this sort of care but whose mothers have somehow slipped through the net of normal practice can be saved. Joyous news. But not quite as joyous as everyone seems to be making out.

UPDATE: This blog originally said that HIV tests at birth couldn't be accurate, but this applies only to antibody tests. The tests on DNA/RNA, which were done in this case, have a greater (although not 100 per cent) degree of accuracy.

HIV cure: not necessarily.. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

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Not just a one-quack mind: ducks are capable of abstract thought

Newborn ducklings can differentiate between objects that are the same and objects that are different, causing scientists to rethink the place of abstract thinking.

There’s a particular loftiness to abstract thought. British philosopher and leading Enlightenment thinker John Locke asserted that “brutes abstract not” – by which he meant anything which doesn’t fall under the supreme-all-mighty-greater-than-everything category of Homo sapiens was most probably unequipped to deal with the headiness and complexities of abstract thinking.

Intelligence parameters tail-ended by “bird-brained” or “Einstein” tend to place the ability to think in abstract ways at the Einstein end of the spectrum. However, in light of some recent research coming out of the University of Oxford, it seems that the cognitive abilities of our feathery counterparts have been underestimated.

In a study published in Science, led by Alex Kacelnik – a professor of behavioural psychology – a group of ducklings demonstrated the ability to think abstractly within hours of being hatched, distinguishing the concepts of “same” and “different” with success.

Young ducklings generally become accustomed to their mother’s features via a process called imprinting – a learning mechanism that helps them identify the individual traits of their mothers. Kacelnik said: “Adult female ducks look very similar to each other, so recognising one’s mother is very difficult. Ducklings see their mothers from different angles, distances, light conditions, etc, so their brains use every possible source of information to avoid errors, and abstracting some properties helps in this job.”

It’s this hypothesised abstracting of some properties that led Kacelnik to believe that there must be more going on with the ducklings beyond their imprinting of sensory inputs such as shapes, colours or sounds.

The ability to differentiate the same from the different has previously been used as means to reveal the brain’s capacity to deal with abstract properties, and has been shown in other birds and mammals, such as parrots, pigeons, bees and monkeys. For the most part, these animals were trained, given guidance on how to determine sameness and differences between objects.

What makes Kacelnik’s ducklings special then, as the research showed, was that they were given no training at all in learning the relations between objects which are the same and object which are different.

“Other animals can be trained to respond to abstract relations such as same or different, but not after a single exposure and without reinforcement,” said Kacelnik.

Along with his fellow researcher Antone Martinho III, Kacelnik hatched and domesticated mallard ducklings and then threw them straight into an experiment. The ducklings were presented pairs of objects – either identical or different in shape or colour – to see whether they could find links and relations between the pairs.

The initial pairs they were presented served as the imprinting ones; it would be the characteristics of these pairs which the ducklings would first learn. The initial pairs involved red cones and red cylinders which the ducklings were left to observe and assimilate into their minds for 25 minutes. They were then exposed to a range of different pairs of objects: red pyramid and red pyramid, red cylinder and red cube.

What Kacelnik and his research partner found was that the ducklings weren’t imprinting the individual features of the objects but the relations between them; it’s why of the 76 ducklings that were experimented with, 68 per cent tended to move towards the new pairs which were identical to the very first pairs they were exposed to.

Put simply, if they initially imprinted an identical pair of objects, they were more likely to favour a second pair of identical objects, but if they initially imprinted a pair of objects that were different, they would favour a second pair of differing objects similar to the first.

The results from the experiment seem to highlight a misunderstanding of the advanced nature of this type of conceptual thought process. As science journalist Ed Yong suggests, there could be, “different levels of abstract concepts, from simple ones that young birds can quickly learn after limited experience, to complex ones that adult birds can cope with”.

Though the research doesn’t in any way assume or point towards intelligence in ducklings to rival that of humans, it seems that the growth in scientific literature on the topic continues to refute the notions that human being as somehow superior. Kacelnik told me: “The last few decades of comparative cognition research have destroyed many claims about human uniqueness and this trend is likely to continue.”