For the first time a woman was cured of HIV thanks to a treatment carried out through the transplantation of stem cells taken from an umbilical cord. A very important turning point in medicine, which feeds the hope of finding medical therapies and solutions to the AIDS virus. The woman, a middle-aged New York resident, contracted HIV in 2013. Over time, the infection has evolved into a blood cancer – acute myeloid leukemia –, which led the patient to undergo a cord blood transplant four years later. Doctors presented the case on Tuesday, February 15, 2022 at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Denver, but the results have not yet been released.
Medical therapy began with a powerful course of chemotherapy to destroy diseased blood cells and replace them with stem cells taken from a family member compatible with the donation. Subsequently, the woman received other stem cells coming from the umbilical cord blood of an unrelated infant, but carrying the mutation necessary to make the cells resistant to HIV. After the cure, the patient has stopped taking the anti-retroviral treatment against the virus, which has not been detected in his body for 14 months. According to experts, however, the last word has not yet been said. The virus, in fact, could have entered a temporary state of “latency” and, if so, it could recur. Furthermore, if the subject were to be completely healed, the therapy would not be applicable to everyone. In fact, the fundamental condition for undergoing the transplant paradoxically it is a diagnosis of blood cancer.
The New York patient is not the only one who has recovered from the infection. There have been two other cases, specifically in Berlin and London, where the healing of the subjects – they too suffer from leukemia – was achieved thanks to stem cell transplant taken from the bone marrow of donors. The first, she received the transplant in 2008 and lived healthy until 2020, when passed away due to cancer recurrence. The second patient underwent the transplant and recovered from AIDS in 2019, showing that both he and the Berlin patient were healed thanks to stem cells from the marrow of people who carry a rare mutation that protects against the HIV virus.
The two recovered, however, showed serious forms of rejection, such as hearing loss or graft-versus-host disease (the donor’s cells attack the recipient’s body). What did not happen, however, to the “New York patient”, which she did not accuse particular side effects. It is not yet clear what actually is why cord blood stem cells work so well. According to experts, it is now almost proven that these are able to adapt easily to new organisms.
[di Eugenia Greco]