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A group of researchers recently announced that they’ve cured a patient with HIV using umbilical cord blood at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections on Tuesday.
The patient, now 14 months HIV-free, became the first woman to be cured of the disease when she received cord blood from a donor who was naturally unaffected by HIV. The unnamed female, a biracial woman whose exact age is unknown, was given the treatment to combat leukemia, a type of cancer that takes over in a person’s bone marrow where blood is formed. In addition to stem cells from the cord blood, she was given adult blood stem cells from a close relative considered first-degree to help with any side effects the transplant might have.
“We estimate that there are approximately 50 patients per year in the U.S. who could benefit from this procedure,” said Dr. Koen van Besien, one of the doctors at the Weill Cornell stem transplant division in charge of assessing the woman, to NBC News.
Only two other patients have been cured of HIV before. The patients, both of which were men, were treated by receiving a bone marrow transplant from a donor who was resistant to HIV. Timothy Ray Brown was the first person to have been cured, staying H.I.V. for 12 years until his death from cancer in 2020. The second person is Adam Castillejo who was treated for the virus in 2019.
Following the transplant, both Brown and Castillejo had to deal with health problems as a result of the new foreign cells assaulting their new hosts. While Brown almost passed away, Castillejo had to deal with complications a year after the transplant, losing 70 pounds and no longer being able to hear.
The new treatment, professionally known as “the haplo-cord treatment,” gave the woman a significantly less difficult time when it came to the side effects as the umbilical cord stem cells did not attack her body.
This new scientific discovery is also important because the donor was not a complete match to the woman. Usually, when it comes to transplants, doctors try to find someone willing to participate that’s immune to HIV and the exact same race and ethnicity as the person receiving the cells.
Since the genetic trait for HIV immunity is extremely rare and is found in only one percent of mainly northern European descent, it’s extremely difficult for people with different racial and ancestral backgrounds to find the same genetic makeup. With the umbilical cord treatment, the woman’s donor was only a partial match, meaning that the new treatment broadens the available donors for people with HIV as an exact match is not a requirement.
While the new breakthrough case does advance H.I.V. treatment, researchers emphasize that “the haplo-cord treatment” will not provide a cure for everyone living with H.I.V. Being that a stem cell transplant is considered dangerous and sometimes deadly, those eligible to receive it have to have an underlying condition like cancer that is considered just as threatening.
While no cure is available to the public for H.I.V. as of now, there are ways of managing it. Undetectable=Untransmittable is a medication offered to people diagnosed with H.I.V. in the early stages that helps lower the traces of the virus to an undetectable level, preventing their sexual partners from getting it.
To protect from getting H.I.V., people who believe infection is possible can take PrEp. With PrEp, individuals take prevention pills, such as Truvada and Descovy, every day to stay safe. According to hiv.gov, these medications lower the chances of getting H.I.V. by at least 99%.
Moderna and the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative are also working on a vaccine for H.I.V. Earlier this year, it was announced that they began test trials for the project which uses mRNA to prompt the body to have a specific immune response. The idea for the vaccine came after Moderna successfully used mRNA to create a COVID-19 vaccine.