A Woman Was Cured of HIV Thanks to Stem Cells From Umbilical Cord Blood

The mixed-race, middle-aged patient received stem cells from umbilical cord blood, opening up a world of possibilities when it comes to treating the once-considered incurable virus.

first woman cured of HIV with stem cell therapy
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In case you needed even more proof that science is amazing, a woman just became the third patient to be potentiallycured of HIV after undergoing a stem cell transplant. More specifically, the woman — who also had leukemia — received stem cells from umbilical cord blood (vs. bone marrow, which was used in two previous, HIV-positive male patients to treat their respective cancers and HIVin 2009 and again in 2019).

The new case, which was reported at the Conference of Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infection on Tuesday, is the first time a transplant approach has been effective in a mixed-race woman, according to The Washington Post. This is a BFD for many reasons, including the fact that it opens up the possibility of curing a wider array of people (and those of diverse racial backgrounds, too) using stem cells from umbilical cord blood.(

Four years after being diagnosed with HIV, the woman (who has yet to be publically identified) developed leukemia and soon received a stem cell transplant to treat both diseases. Unlike in previous aforementioned cases in men, the transplanted stem cells were from two different umbilical cords: one of which was from a partial match for blood stem cells and the other, a close relative.This is quite different from the process of receiving stem cells from adults, which requires a donor to be of a similar race and ethnicity to that of the patient and are less widely available than cord blood stem cells.

What's more, most donors in registries are Caucasian, according to The New York Times. So, the fact that a mixed-race woman was able to be cured of HIV with just a partial match suggests that the new stem cell treatment has the potential to cure even more HIV-positive patients, according to the researchers involved in the case, as reported by the publication.

Since receiving the cord blood stem cells, the woman has been in HIV remission and free of the virus for 14 months,without taking the antiretroviral drugs that she used to rely on to keep her HIV in check. ICYDK, antiretroviral medications are used to manage the virus by preventing it from replicating in the body, ensuring the viral low remains very low, which, in turn, allows the patient's immune system to re-strengthen while also preventing transmission to others. To date, antiviral medication is the best course of treatment for HIV although it does not cure the virus. (See also: Yes, Women Can Take PrEP for HIV, Too)

The level of virus in her blood was "undetectable through this whole period," Yvonne J. Bryson, an infectious-diseases physician at the David Geffen School of Medicine at the University of California at Los Angeles, who presented the case, told The Washington Post. An "undetectable" amount of HIV in the blood is essential for preserving the health of the person living with the virus, but also prevents sexual transmission of the virus to an HIV-negative person, according to the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases.

Of course, the success of the treatment in and of itself is groundbreaking, considering the fact that not too long ago HIV was considered incurable. (To be clear, given the likely limited access to such cutting-edge treatment options, it still is for many patients.) The latest case is particularly promising for several reasons, not just the fairly new method of treatment via stem cells from umbilical cords.

For starters, HIV is believed to progress differently in women than in men, according to The New York Times, and women, especially those of mixed race, have long been left out of HIV-related research. Another reason why this recent case is noteworthy? The woman differed from the other two male patients who received remission from HIV in that she didn't suffer from graft vs. host disease, a condition that occurs when stem cells from a donor attack the recipient after a transplant. (Essentially the donated stem cells view the recipient's body as a foreign invader and, in turn, fight the new host, according to the Cleveland Clinic.)

"A bone-marrow transplant is not a viable large-scale strategy for curing HIV, but it does present a proof of concept that HIV can be cured, Sharon Lewin, president-elect of the International AIDS Society, told The Washington Post. "It also further strengthens using gene therapy as a viable strategy for an HIV cure."

So while the recent report might just be one small step toward developing a trusted treatment for curing HIV, all of the above points are no doubt promising. And being that the current pandemic continues to carry on, the success of this case might offer even a little bit of hope, especially given HIV was once considered by some experts to be a global pandemic, too.

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