Stem cells to cure HIV?

February 11, 2009 3:26:38 PM PST
There is an amazing report in the New England Journal of Medicine, in which doctors say a stem cell transplant may have cured a man of HIV. The experiment won't benefit the ordinary patient just yet, but it does open a new door to brand new scientific approaches to battling the virus.

"You always have to start in one place, with one patient and see how we can do it for other people," said Dr. Jeffrey Laurence, of New York Presbyterian/Weill Cornell Medical Center.

Dr. Laurence is a leading AIDS researcher familiar with the stem cell transplant done on a 42-year-old American man in Germany.

"This person, now over two years, has no evidence of HIV anywhere in his body," Dr. Laurence said.

It was a bone marrow transplant treating the HIV -positive patient for leukemia, which also wiped out the HIV.

The reason was that doctors used stem cells from a donor whose genetic makeup had an added quality. He not only was a tissue match, but also carried a unique gene mutation - delta 32 ccr5 - a mutation which makes his cells resistant to HIV.

The genetic mutation is present in a little more than 1 percent of caucasians. Those who have it are resistant to most common forms of HIV.

When the recipient got the new bone marrow, his cells could now block out the HIV, and, in effect, he was cured.

Bone marrow transplants are high risk, so only lymphoma and leukemia patients take the risk to possibly cure their cancer.

Dr. Laurence works with the American Foundation for AIDS research. He says they're raising funds to be ready to treat AIDS patients for leukemia using stem cells from a ccr5-positive donor, donors whose cells have that immunity to HIV.

"We want to be ready to offer that person something similar to what's happened in Europe," Dr. Laurence said. "So that we can jump right not to give you the ordinary transplant that you would have gotten, but an added benefit of potentially being cured of your HIV."

Dr. Laurence is also working on genetically engineering a patient's own cells to make them HIV resistant, but the technology to reach 100 percent of the cells is not quite there yet.

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WEB PRODUCED BY: Bill King


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