US woman becomes first to be cured of HIV: Know all about the umbilical cord blood treatment


American researchers in Denver have claimed success in curing HIV in a woman, a first ever, using a novel stem cell transplant method.

This is the third person ever to be cured of HIV; the previous two male patients who had been cured received expensive bone marrow transplants.

Here’s a look at the treatment used and what it means in the fight against HIV.

‘New York patient’

The woman, suffering from leukaemia, was treated using a new method that involved umbilical cord blood, which is more readily available than the adult stem cells — which are often used in bone marrow transplants, according to the New York Times.

Umbilical cord stem cells also do not need to be matched as closely to the recipient as bone marrow cells do.

The woman is being called the ‘New York patient’ by scientists, because she received the treatment at the New York-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center.

Since receiving the cord blood, the middle-aged woman of mixed race has been in remission and free of HIV for 14 months, without the need for potent treatments known as antiretroviral therapy.

The US mixed-race patient had been diagnosed with HIV in 2013 and had been on antiretroviral drugs. In March 2017, she was diagnosed with acute myelogenous leukaemia, and in August the same year, received the mutation-containing cord blood transplant.

Explaining the process, Dr Marshall Glesby, an infectious diseases expert at Weill Cornell Medicine of New York and part of the research team, was quoted as telling the New York Times, that the patient received cord blood from a donor with the mutation that blocks HIV’s entry into cells. But it can take about six weeks for cord blood cells to engraft, so she was also given partially matched blood stem cells from a first-degree relative.

The half-matched 'haplo' cells from her relative propped up her immune system until the cord blood cells became dominant, making the transplant much less dangerous.

A step forward?

Dr Koen van Besien, one of the doctors involved in the treatment, was quoted as telling The Guardian that the umbilical cord treatment for HIV could be beneficial to many.

He said, "We estimate that there are approximately 50 patients per year in the US who could benefit from this procedure.

"The ability to use partially matched umbilical cord blood grafts greatly increases the likelihood of finding suitable donors for such patients."

A benefit from this method is that banks of this resource are much easier to screen in large numbers for the HIV-resistance abnormality than the bone marrow registries from which oncologists find stem cell donors. Before the New York patient became a candidate for the haplo-cord treatment, the doctors had already screened thousands of cord blood samples in search of the genetic abnormality.

Previous HIV cures

In 2008, Timothy Ray Brown from California, who came to be known as the ‘Berlin Patient’, was the first to be cured of AIDS. His identity was revealed in 2010, and he died in 2020 from leukaemia.

Adam Castillejo, who was known as the ‘London Patient’, was the second to be cured, in 2019.

Both men had painful and expensive bone marrow transplants from donors with a rare genetic mutation that is resistant to HIV. They were also on antiretroviral therapy.

Another patient, a 36-year-old man in Brazil, dubbed the Sao Paulo Patient, was temporarily able to remove the virus from his body using a drug cocktail and without surgery two years ago, but the virus rebounded with a detectable viral load 72 weeks or 15 months after he went off antiretroviral therapy.

With inputs from agencies

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US woman becomes first to be cured of HIV: Know all about the umbilical cord blood treatment
US woman becomes first to be cured of HIV: Know all about the umbilical cord blood treatment
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