The first woman — and third person ever — has reportedly been cured of HIV after receiving a breakthrough treatment involving a “magical” umbilical cord blood transplant.
Researchers at New York-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York led the study, and shared their findings during the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Denver the New York Times reported Tuesday. Their case study, from New York, bears significance for a number of reasons.
The “past middle-aged” woman, who chose not to be identified in the interest of privacy, was among the first to receive a novel transplant method using umbilical cord blood, fortified with a mutation that blocks HIV from entering her cells. She also received partially matched blood stem cells from a first-degree relative — a parent, offspring or sibling — while the cord blood treatment worked its way through her rejiggered immune system.
Now, just 14 months after her transplant, her blood shows no trace of the virus. The successful therapy also led to remission from leukemia that she developed in March 2017 due to HIV infection.
Scientists believe the fact that cord blood comes from newborns might suggest they’re “more adaptable” than adult stem cells, Dr. Koen van Besien, transplant service director at Weill Cornell Medicine, told the Times.
Dr. Steven Deeks, AIDS lecturer at the University of California, San Francisco, who was not involved in the study, called them an “attractive option.”
“There’s something magical about these cells and something magical perhaps about the cord blood in general that provides an extra benefit,” Deeks told the Times.
Compared to transplants using typical adult stem cells — which previously cured two men of HIV following a drastic recovery, according to NBC News — cord blood cells are also far more accessible to more patients, especially people of color.
Unlike traditional bone marrow transplants, those using cord blood — also called a haplo-cord transplant — allow patients who are only partial blood-type matches to receive the transplant.
More than half of the 38 million HIV cases globally are women, yet only 11% are represented in clinical trials for a cure.
An estimated 73% of HIV cases are taking traditional HIV treatment, predominantly antiretroviral drugs, which has helped some patients achieve remission. In rare and extreme cases, however, bone marrow transplants are an option, but an expensive and invasive one that presents major risks all its own.
The first and second patients dubbed cured of HIV — “The Berlin Patient” Timothy Ray Brown, who died of cancer in 2020 after beating HIV 12 years ago, and Adam Castillejo, who went public with his cure in 2019 — both received bone marrow transplants from adult donors who carried a mutation that blocks HIV infection. Besides eventually eradicating the disease, the procedure came with severe trade-offs. Brown nearly died when the donor marrow cells attacked his body, called graft versus host disease, while Castillejo suffered hearing loss and battled multiple infections before he was in the clear.
The first woman had an altogether different journey with cord blood treatment. She left the hospital on post-op day 17 and has not developed severe infection, according to her physicians at Weill Cornell.
“We estimate that there are approximately 50 patients per year in the US who could benefit from this procedure,” van Besien told NBC News. However, “the ability to use partially matched umbilical cord blood grafts greatly increases the likelihood of finding suitable donors for such patients.”
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