First woman ever is cured of HIV using novel stem cell transplant

She’s the third person ever to be cured of the virus.
Can Emir
An illustration of the HIV.nopparit/iStock

A leukemia patient in the United States has become the first woman and third person to date to be cured of HIV using a novel transplant method involving umbilical cord blood from a donor, scientists from the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA) and Johns Hopkins University announced at the virtually held Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections.

This could be a major breakthrough, as the new method of transplanting stem cells may be administered to dozens of people every year, potentially heralding a new era for the global HIV epidemic. 

A novel method using umbilical cord blood

The woman, who is middle-aged and of mixed race and referred to as the "New York Patient", was diagnosed with HIV in 2013, and leukemia in 2017. She received umbilical cord blood from a donor who was a partial match to treat her myeloid leukemia, which is a type of cancer that starts in blood-forming cells in the bone marrow, as well as HIV.  

In addition, the woman received blood from a close relative to temporarily bolster her immune system while the transplant was settling. The transplant of the stem cells with a rare genetic mutation that blocks HIV invasion was reportedly successful, as the researchers now say that she has been in remission and free of the virus for 14 months, without the need for HIV treatments. She has shown no detectable signs of the virus in extensive testing since she stopped antiretroviral treatment in October 2020.

Umbilical cord blood is more widely available than the adult stem cells used in bone marrow transplants, as it does not need to be a close match to the recipient. This allows for only a partial match to have the potential to cure dozens of people who have both HIV and cancer each year, scientists explained.

This is important scientifically and also in terms of the community impact

The patient's gender is significant, as women comprise for more than half the number of people living with HIV worldwide but only account for 11 percent of participants in cure trials.

"This is now the third report of a cure in this setting and the first in a woman living with HIV," said the President-Elect of the International AIDS Society Sharon Lewin in a video call during the conference.

There have only been two known cases that were cured of HIV so far, and both have been males. Referred to as "The Berlin Patient", Timothy Ray Brown lived virus-free for 12 years until he died in 2020 of cancer, and another patient, who was later identified as Adam Castillejo, was reported to be cured of the virus in 2019.

This adds to a series of good news in the world HIV, which affects roughly 38 million people around the world. Most recently, scientists from Doherty Institute announced that a type of a cancer drug might be able to flush out HIV from patient’s system. On the other hand, the technology that allowed us to combat COVID-19, is proving to be crucial in this field, too, with Moderna announcing that it has started early-stage trials of its mRNA HIV vaccine on humans.  

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