U.S. leukemia patient first woman to be cured of HIV with stem cell transplant

Scientists are optimistic, while Dr. Anthony Fauci cautions people with HIV not to "get their hopes up."

Chris Arnold 3 minute read February 17, 2022
Science Background

Previously, two men were cured of HIV thanks to a bone marrow or stem cell transplant. GETTY

A woman with leukemia from the United States is the third person ever to be cured of human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), after undergoing a stem cell transplant. 

Researchers from the University of California Los Angeles presented their findings at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Denver, Colorado. 

“Today, we reported the third known case of HIV remission and the first woman following a stem cell transplant and using HIV-resistant cells,” Dr. Yvonne Bryson, who led the study, said during a press conference, ABC News reports. “This case is special for several reasons: First, our participant was a U.S. woman living with HIV of mixed race, who needed a stem cell transplant for treatment of her leukemia. And she would find a more difficult time finding both a genetic match and one with the HIV-resistant mutation to both cure her cancer and potentially her HIV. This is a natural, but rare mutation.”

Previously, two men were cured of HIV thanks to a bone marrow or stem cell transplant. The first, known as the “Berlin patient” was reported cured in 2006. The second, known as the “London patient” was reported cured in 2019. 

Bryson’s study began in 2015, when scientists observed 25 people living with HIV who underwent a blood stem cell transplant for reasons unrelated to HIV — in the successful patient it was leukemia. By killing cancerous immune cells with radiation or chemotherapy and then transplanting stem cells with a specific genetic mutation, scientists think people with HIV are able to develop their own immunity to the virus. 

“The fact that she’s mixed race, and that she’s a woman, that is really important scientifically and really important in terms of the community impact,” Steven Deeks, an AIDS expert from the University of California, San Francisco, told the New York Times. 

The stem cells used for the study were specifically taken from umbilical cords for treatment of life-threatening conditions, such as cancer. Umbilical cords contain leftover blood, which is full of stem cells, according to the government of Alberta. Other conditions that can be treated with umbilical stem cells include Hodgkin’s disease, anemia, and immune system disorders. 

But ‘don’t get your hopes up’

During a video interview with Community Health Center, Inc., Dr. Anthony Fauci, a leading infectious disease expert in the United States, said people should not get their hopes up that this is a potential end to HIV. 

“This person had an underlying disease that required a stem cell transplant,” Fauci said. “I don’t want people to think this can be applied to the 36 million people living with HIV. This is much more of a proof of concept that one can actually get the virus out and be suppressed for a long period of time. It is not practical to think that this is something that’s going to be widely available.”

In the United States, a total of 1.1 million people have HIV — 258,000 of whom are women, according to health non-profit Kaiser Family Foundation. Women of colour make up the majority of female HIV cases. 

As of 2018, women accounted for 19 per cent of new HIV diagnoses in the United States, which was down five per cent from 2010. 

Chris Arnold is a Toronto-based freelance writer. He can be reached here.
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