First woman cured of HIV after stem cell transplant

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A patient with leukemia in the United States, has become the first woman and the third person to be cured of HIV following a stem cell transplant from a donor who was naturally resistant to the virus that causes AIDS.

Presented at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Denver, the case of a middle-aged woman of mixed race, is also the first case involving umbilical cord blood, a newer approach that may make the treatment available to more people.

The woman, since receiving the cord blood to treat her acute myeloid leukemia, has been in remission, free of the virus for 14 months and without the need for antiretroviral therapy.

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The two prior cases which occurred in males had received adult stem cells, which are more frequently used in bone marrow transplants.

Sharon Lewin, President-Elect of the International AIDS Society in a statement, said, “This is now the third report of a cure in this setting, and the first in a woman living with HIV”.

It is worthy of note that this case is part of a larger U.S.-backed study led by Dr. Yvonne Bryson of the University of California Los Angeles (UCLA), and Dr. Deborah Persaud of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore.

The study aims to follow 25 HIV carriers who undergo a transplant with stem cells taken from umbilical cord blood for the treatment of cancer and other serious conditions.

Firstly, the patients in the trial undergo chemotherapy to kill off the cancerous immune cells, after which the doctors will transplant stem cells from individuals with a specific genetic mutation in which they lack receptors used by the virus to infect cells.

According to scientists, these individuals will then develop an immune system resistant to HIV. Although scientists previously believed that a common stem cell transplant side effect called graft-versus-host disease played a role in a possible cure, scientists now believe that the recent study suggests that an important element to the success is the transplantation of HIV-resistant cells.

Sharon Lewin, President-Elect of the International AIDS Society, says, “Taken together, these three cases of a cure post stem cell transplant all help in teasing out the various components of the transplant that were absolutely key to a cure”.