In what some are calling a major breakthrough for both stem cell treatment and HIV research, a patient in the UK has been given the “all clear” on his HIV diagnosis. The news is spreading hope that researchers may be closer than ever to eradicating AIDS.
The patient was actually undergoing stem cell treatment for advanced Hodgkin’s lymphoma at the time. But, in order to treat the lymphoma with stem cells, doctors needed to find a donor who was resistant to his other condition – HIV, the virus that causes AIDS.
After the stem cell treatment, which involved replacing the patient’s white blood cells with HIV-resistant versions, the patient was deemed as in remission.
Not only for the cancer, but also for the HIV – which, according to doctors, had become “undetectable.”
The patient, who hasn’t been identified, continues to live HIV-free after stopping treatment 18 months ago.1
Incredible, But Not The First
This remarkable result is actually not the first, but the second, of its kind in history. In 2007, an HIV-positive patient in Berlin, Germany, received a bone-marrow transplant for acute myeloid leukemia. In similar circumstances, a donor who was naturally resistant to HIV was used.
After two stem cell transplants, the German patient’s HIV was no longer detectable. Just like the most recent case, this patient went into remission.2
What’s so exciting for those in the medical field is that these two situations were similar, and they both worked.
Understanding Stem Cells
Stem cells are themselves pretty exciting: they can be taken from a healthy person and put into another person to create vibrant new cells that can help treat disease, or repair damaged tissues or blood, as in the HIV cases.3
In the cases above, both patients were suffering from cancers of the blood, so blood-forming stem cells were transplanted. These stem cells have the ability to grow into three essential types of blood cells:
- White blood cells
- Red blood cells
This can help a patient produce their own new stem cells after aggressive radiation and/or chemotherapy treatments. And, in the case of some blood cancers, it’s even been shown to work directly against cancer – the new white blood cells attack any remaining cancer cells after those aggressive treatments.4
So, Is This The Cure For HIV?
Unfortunately, researchers say it’s too early to jump the gun and declare these treatments as a “cure,” and doctors are hesitant to deem this new patient as “cured.” It’s just too early to know, they say. It’s also not practical to start using such treatment on all HIV patients.
For one, chemotherapy is hugely toxic. It’s risky, and it was undertaken only because these were life-or-death situations. Stem cell transplants are also an expensive and complex procedure. Additionally, only a tiny percent of the population has this HIV immunity gene (known as CCR5) – so the donor pool is small.
Finally, it’s still not clear what exact component worked in both cases.
Interestingly, both patients suffered from something called “graft-versus-host” disease during their treatment, which happens when the body’s immune cells fight the new cells.
Usually, you don’t want this to happen in a transplant, but researchers believe that it’s not out of the question this may have helped remove the HIV-infected cells.5
What’s Next For HIV Treatment?
Researchers involved in this extraordinary case still believe that current therapies, including combination antiretroviral therapy (cART), are effective, and people are now living long, healthy lives with HIV. cART therapy involves lifelong medications designed to keep HIV infection under control.
But, of course, this stem cell treatment is seen as a significant development in HIV research. It could, experts say, help in the future discovery of a cure.6
Scientists also believe the discovery could even lead to gene therapy now they know that these genetically-resistant stem cells have twice had an effect. Both patients received stem cells from a donor that had a specific genetic mutation, and it appears to have made them both resistant to HIV as well.
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