Incredible news! Researchers in the United Kingdom have affirmed that a second person with HIV has cured thanks to a stem cell transplant. The first-ever person cured of HIV was Timothy Ray Brown, referred publicly as the Berlin patient. He was cured in 2007. However, his journey towards a cure was not easy and straightforward. He was diagnosed with HIV in the early 1990s, and he received antiretroviral treatment, which is the usual course of action for an HIV infection.
Additionally, later on, he was also diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, for which he required a stem cell transplant. As he was searching for a suitable donor match, his doctor suggested he try an experiment. He looked for a donor with a specific genetic mutation that practically made them immune to HIV.
Receiving those stem cells from his donor, not only treated Mr. Brown’s leukemia but also cured the HIV infection. Recently, a new study featuring in The Lancet shows that another person has now been cured of HIV, also by a stem cell transplant.
The incredible success of stem cell transplantation
This new study talks about a second HIV case in which the person received a stem cell transplant with cells that did not express the CCR5 gene, which produces a protein that helps the virus enter cells.
The cells that did not express the CCR5 gene were part of a bone marrow transplant, which the person was undergoing as a treatment for Hodgkin lymphoma. 30 months after the transplant, the person ceased antiretroviral therapy, and then, the doctors confirmed that the HIV viral load remained undetectable in blood samples.
These findings imply that whatever traces of the virus’s genetic material might still be in their system, the so-called fossil traces, which means that they cannot lead to further replication of the virus.
Researchers have confirmed that the HIV virus also remained undetectable in samples of cerebrospinal fluid, semen, intestinal tissue, and lymphoid tissue.
“We propose that these results represent the second ever case of a patient to be cured of HIV,” says the study’s lead author, Prof. Ravindra Kumar Gupta, from the University of Cambridge in the U.K.
“Our findings show that the success of stem cell transplantation as a cure for HIV, first reported 9 years ago in the Berlin patient, can be replicated.” – Prof. Ravindra Kumar Gupta
However, Prof. Gupta underlines that “it is important to note that this curative treatment is high risk and only used as a last resort for patients with HIV who also have life-threatening hematological blood malignancies.”
“Therefore, this is not a treatment that would be offered widely to patients with HIV who are on successful antiretroviral treatment,” the researcher goes on to caution.
Other researchers involved in this study made their comments on these findings, expressing the hope that, in the future, scientists may be able to use state-of-the-art gene-editing tools as a part of interventions meant to treat and cure HIV infections.
Dr. Dimitra Peppa, who is from the University of Oxford in the U.K. and co-authored the study, notes that “[g]ene editing using the CCR5 has received a lot of attention recently.”
Nevertheless, she suggests that there is still a long way to go before such therapies may become viable.
“There are still many ethical and technical barriers — e.g., gene editing, efficiency, and robust safety data — to overcome before any approach using CCR5 gene editing can be considered as a scalable cure strategy for HIV,” she says.