Stem Cell Transplant Could Eradicate HIV

· March 20, 2019
We're all aware of the seriousness of HIV and the difficulties surrounding its treatment. Recently, however, there has been a discovery that could change the treatment methods for all HIV carriers.

A huge step has been made towards treating HIV. A group of Spanish scientists have managed to reduce the HIV viral load to undetectable levels in six patients. While this is not an absolute cure, this discovery could represent a huge breakthrough in order to eradicate HIV. Here is a brief overview of the process that led to this discovery.

The Annals of Internal Medicine recently published a finding that not only shocked the scientific community, but the general public as well.

Why is it so shocking?

There have been many proposed treatments to eradicate HIV. Unfortunately, few of these solutions have proved effective. However, this finding seems different. Scientists from the IrsiCaixa AIDS Research in Barcelona and from the Gregorio Marañón Hospital in Madrid made the discovery.

Through the transplant of stem cells, these researchers were able to reduce the HIV virus in six people. 

How exactly have these researchers achieved this outcome?

Let’s take a look.

The HIV Virus was Reduced to Undetectable Levels

HIV Virus was reduced

The transplants in this study used umbilical cord and bone marrow stem cells. The bone marrow stem cells proved to be the most effective.

According to the scientists who conducted the procedure, after the transplant, the affected patients had undetectable traces of the virus in their blood and body tissues. Furthermore, one of these patients lacked antibodies, indicating that the virus has the potential to be eradicated.

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Other than the stem cells themselves, the time needed to complete the transplant is also very important. One patient – the one that had reserves of the virus in his body and who also received the umbilical cord stem cells – needed just 18 months to complete the treatment.

Although participants in this study continue their antiretroviral treatment, many believe that this study has paved the way to a new form of HIV/AIDS treatment. With that in mind, the successful outcome of this experiment does not mean that a cure has already been found.

While there is still a long way to go in the discovery of an absolute cure, this experiment could spearhead research for a successful cure.

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Is this Result a First Step to Eradicate HIV?

Until now, curing the HIV virus was considered impossible by the scientific community. Viral reservoirs made up of infected cells that lie dormant in the blood makes curing and treating HIV very difficult. Due to these latent reservoirs, drugs and other attempts at cures have not had the desired effect on the virus.

As was mentioned earlier, with this study, that is not the case. Seven years after the stem cell transplant, five patients exhibited none of these dormant reservoirs, and one of these five did not even have antibodies to fight the infected cells at the time of the transplant.

Now, is it possible to ensure that the virus will not appear again in the future?

According to María Salgado, a researcher at IrsiCaixa in Barcelona, the patients would need to stop the antiretroviral treatment and see if the virus reappears.

That is precisely the next step. Under the control and examination of doctors and researchers, other immunotherapy treatments will be used and the patients will be monitored to see if the virus returns. 

The Inspiring Case of Timothy Brown

Timothy Brown

In 2008, a breakthrough in medicine occurred when Timothy Brown underwent a stem cell transplant to cure leukemia. The stem cell donor had an unusual genetic mutation called CCR5 Delta 32. Specifically, this peculiarity led to an immunity to certain blood cells with the HIV virus. After the transplant, the virus was eradicated, resulting in Brown being the first person in history to be cured of HIV.

After this discovery, researchers like Salgado, Mi Kwon, a hematologist at the Gregorio Marañón Hospital, and other members of their teams have dedicated themselves to experimenting with similar processes to find a cure for people infected with HIV.

Unlike in the case of Timothy Brown, the researchers did not use donor cells with the CCR5 Delta 32 mutation. This could mean that there are also other factors that influence the disappearance of the virus.

In conclusion, we are clearly witnessing a possible medical breakthrough. After many years of unsuccessful attempts, the struggle to cure the HIV virus may have found its path.

People everywhere hope that this direction will provide an effective cure to what many people consider an incurable disease.

  • Annals of Internal Medicine. (2018). Mechanisms That Contribute to a Profound Reduction of the HIV-1 Reservoir After Allogeneic Stem Cell Transplant. DOI: 10.7326/M18-0759
  • Brown, T. R. (2015). I Am the Berlin Patient: A Personal Reflection. AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses. https://doi.org/10.1089/aid.2014.0224