Stem-cell Transplants Offer Potential Cure for HIV

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Because of stem-cell transplants for cancer they received, two men in London with HIV have managed to survive without the use of AIDS drugs for several months. Researchers reported today that the HIV virus has been cleared from the bodies of the two men. This is powerful preliminary evidence that stem-cell transplants offer a potential cure for HIV.

In Boston, both of the patients had been treated and had been on long-term drug therapy to control their HIV. They sadly both developed lymphoma, a type of blood cancer, and then received the stem-cell transplants to combat the lymphoma.

Timothy Henrich of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston told an International AIDS Society conference in Kuala Lumpur that, since the transplants, doctors have been unable to find any evidence of HIV infection in the two men.

It is too early to tell if the virus has disappeared from their bodies altogether, or if it might recur. However, one of the patients has been off antiretroviral drug treatment for 15 weeks and the other for seven weeks, and so far, neither has shown any signs that HIV has returned to their bodies.

In a manner of speaking, this is not “new” news. Heinrich reported last July that the two men had undetectable levels of HIV in their blood after their stem-cell treatment, but at that time they were still taking medicines to suppress HIV.

When will the transplantation of stem-cells be used on a wide-spread basis to combat HIV?

Stem-cell therapy, unfortunately, is very expensive. Therefore, it’s not currently seen as a viable option for widespread use. But, the success in treating these two men, whose bodies are still clear of any signs of HIV infection, might help to eventually bring the costs for the therapy down and make it more available to the 34 million worldwide who are infected with HIV.

These two latest cases are somewhat similar to that of Timothy Ray Brown, known as “the Berlin patient.” He became the first person to be cured of HIV after receiving a bone marrow transplant for leukemia in 2007. However, there are important differences.

Brown’s doctor used stem cells from a donor with a rare genetic mutation, known as CCR5 delta 32. This mutation renders people virtually resistant to HIV. The two Boston patients received cells without this mutation.

Kevin Robert Frost, chief executive officer of the Foundation for AIDS Research, which funded the study, said in a statement:

Dr. Henrich is charting new territory in HIV eradication research.”

Due to scientific advances since HIV was first discovered more than 30 years ago, the virus is no longer a death sentence. The latest antiretroviral AIDS drugs can control the virus for decades.

Early treatment for HIV is extremely important. However, many people still do not get therapy early enough. To ensure that the average population has ready access to HIV drugs, the World Health Organisation has called for faster roll-out of medicines after patients test positive.

The leading suppliers of HIV drugs to Africa and to many other poor countries are Indian generics companies. Some of the major Western HIV drug makers include Gilead Sciences, Johnson & Johnson and ViiV Healthcare, which is majority-owned by GlaxoSmithKline.

With stem-cell transplants offering a potential cure for HIV, one of the main obstacles left to making this therapy widely available is that of bringing the cost down.

Let’s hope that a way is found to do this before millions more become infected, and suffer needless deaths.

Written by: Douglas Cobb

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