More than 40 years after the HIV virus was first encountered researchers are still fighting to develop ways to cure HIV, including a range of potential gene therapies. Now one New York woman has been cured of HIV, which remains one of humanity’s most ‘resilient’ viruses.
HIV AIDS arrived in the late ‘70s. By the early ‘80s, it was rife, and a brand new pandemic had arrived. In 2020 alone, about 690,000 people died of the virus. Now there’s ‘VB’, a new and more infectious variant of the HIV virus. Luckily it’s treatable.
There are hints about a cancer drug that could one day work alongside an existing HIV medicine to kill the virus. That’s one for the future. But a few days ago we heard some truly wonderful news about a woman who has been cured of HIV thanks to an umbilical cord blood transplant. Here’s what you need to know.
2007’s landmark HIV cure
In 2007, Timothy Ray Brown was the first person to be cured of HIV. His transplant, from a donor who was naturally resistant to HIV, worked. Since then it has only happened twice more, once for a man called Adam Castillejo, and once with the current female New York patient, we’re discussing. All three people had cancer, needing a stem cell transplant to survive, and curing HIV wasn’t the main aim of the treatment.
New York City’s HIV therapy triumph
The woman was given a transplant of umbilical cord blood. The other two people we mentioned who have been ‘cured’ of AIDS were given adult stem cells from bone marrow. Umbilical cord blood is much more widely available compared to the adult stem cells used for the first two cures. And it also doesn’t come with the need for a close match between the donor and the recipient, either.
The woman stopped taking antiretroviral drugs in October 2020 after a transplant of stem cells containing a rare genetic mutation that blocks HIV invasion. Since then she hasn’t seen any detectable signs of HIV virus despite extensive testing. Now she’s being hailed as the third person in the world, and the first female, to be cured of the virus that has killed countless millions.
It all began with leukaemia treatment
Experts say the transplant method is too risky for most HIV patients. This is the first time it has been used as a ‘functional cure’ for HIV. The woman, who was suffering from the blood cancer leukaemia, was given a stem cell transplant taken from a person who had a natural resistance to the virus that causes AIDS. Now she has been free of the AIDS virus for 14 months.
The transplanted cells had a genetic mutation that stops the HIV virus from infecting them. Scientists think the woman’s immune system has developed resistance to HIV. This is amazing news for us, adding another string to an already impressive bow of potential umbilical blood stem cell treatments for nasty illnesses. It also brings hope to the millions of people – mostly in sub-Saharan Africa – who are living with the HIV virus.
What does the future hold for umbilical cord stem cells and a cure for HIV?
As Sharon Lewin, president of the International Aids Society, says, while this transplant method isn’t viable for most people living with HIV, it ‘confirms that a cure for HIV is possible and further strengthens using gene therapy as a viable strategy for an HIV cure.’
While the study is yet to be published in a peer-reviewed journal, and a scientific consensus hasn’t yet been reached, it’s hopeful. And when you’re living with AIDS, hope means a lot.
Bank your baby’s umbilical cord blood
You never know when your child may become sick. By taking a few minutes to bank your baby’s stem cells after birth, you could protect them for years to come. Talk to our team today – download our brochure to find out more or book your free consultation!
BSc (Hons) Microbiology
Biovault Family CEO, Kate Sneddon, joined Biovault in July 2009 and became Chief Executive Officer in 2016. As health industry professional her experience includes working as a microbiologist and leader at GSK for over 10 years. Her expertise in cord blood banking has been recognised in her awards, features in Parliamentary Review and Parents Guide to Cord Blood, as well as contributions to research with UCL and others.