Promising breakthrough treatment for HIV using stem cells.

Senate Fountain beside the U.S. Capitol in Washington DC. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)
Senate Fountain beside the U.S. Capitol in Washington DC. (Dr. Noorali Bharwani)

We will start by understanding what is HIV and what is stem cell. Then we will talk about the new breakthrough treatment for HIV and AIDS patients.

HIV (human immunodeficiency virus) is a virus that attacks the body’s immune system. Over time, HIV weakens a person’s immune system so it has a very hard time fighting diseases. If HIV is not treated, it can lead to AIDS (acquired immunodeficiency syndrome).

World-wide approximately 38 million people are currently living with HIV, and tens of millions of people have died of AIDS-related causes.

HIV spreads through sexual contact or blood, or from mother to child during pregnancy, childbirth or breast-feeding.

HIV presents with fever, chills, rash, night sweats, sore throat, fatigue and swollen lymph glands.

AIDS is a chronic, potentially life-threatening condition. There is no cure for HIV/AIDS, but medications can dramatically slow the progression of the disease. These drugs have reduced AIDS deaths in many developed nations.

What are stem cells?

Stem cells are primitive cells. They are body’s raw materials. From these cells all other cells with specialized functions are generated. They can help repair rebuild damaged cells. Stem cell therapy is mostly used for treating certain types of cancer or bleeding disorders, such as sickle cell disease.

Stem cells can be isolated from the body in different ways. They can be obtained from a donor’s bone marrow, from blood in the umbilical cord when a baby is born, or from a person’s circulating blood. Cord stem cells are often successful, even when their immune markers only partially match the recipient’s.

Now let us discuss recent newspaper headlines. “First Woman Has Been ‘Cured’ of HIV Using Stem Cells.” Another headline says, “Stem-cell treatment may have cured woman of HIV.” Why is this making headlines? Because this novel treatment using umbilical cord blood could help dozens of people with both HIV and aggressive cancers.

This exciting story is about a middle-aged woman of mixed race who had HIV and acute myeloid leukemia. A woman of mixed race has never been treated like this before. Doctors have cured HIV in two white men, and this is the first such report in a woman. It is also the first time a person who identifies as mixed race has received the treatment.

This lady first received high-dose chemotherapy for acute myeloid leukemia – a treatment that destroys blood cells – then she received the stem cell transplant from specialists at Weill Cornell Medicine, in New York City.

They used transplant cells from two sources: stem cells from a healthy adult relative and umbilical cord blood from an unrelated newborn. The stem cells, from umbilical cord blood, contained a gene variant that makes them resistant to HIV infection. Since the transplant 14 months ago the woman is doing well.

Scientists believe the success of the new method involving umbilical cord blood could allow doctors to help more people of diverse genders and racial backgrounds.

Why is this breakthrough treatment making news?

This was the first case of HIV treatment using umbilical cord blood, which is less invasive and more widely available than invasive bone marrow transplants that cured the two male patients. Cord blood donors don’t need to be matched as closely to the recipient as bone marrow donors, so it can be an option for patients with uncommon tissue types.

Scientists are carefully watching the situation. Despite the apparent success of the treatment, it won’t be available to most of the 38 million people living with HIV around the world just yet. In the meantime, scientists are carefully monitoring this lady’s long-term prognosis. Now, 14 months after the treatment, the HIV infection has not re-emerged. The patient has also been leukemia-free for four years.

We wish her well. Kudos to the doctors involved in her treatment. Let us hope we can get rid of COVID-19 soon so we can return to normal life. Take care and stay healthy.

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