Stem cells appear to have cured AIDS in a test subject, but there’s a catch.

Doctor’s in Germany appear to have cured a man suffering from AIDS with transplanted stem cells:

A 42-year-old HIV patient with leukemia appears to have no detectable HIV in his blood and no symptoms after a stem cell transplant from a donor carrying a gene mutation that confers natural resistance to the virus that causes AIDS, according to a report published Wednesday in the New England Journal of Medicine.

“The patient is fine,” said Dr. Gero Hutter of Charite Universitatsmedizin Berlin in Germany. “Today, two years after his transplantation, he is still without any signs of HIV disease and without antiretroviral medication.”

[…]  HIV uses the CCR5 as a co-receptor (in addition to CD4 receptors) to latch on to and ultimately destroy immune system cells. Since the virus can’t gain a foothold on cells that lack CCR5, people who have the mutation have natural protection. (There are other, less common HIV strains that use different co-receptors.)

People who inherit one copy of CCR5 delta32 take longer to get sick or develop AIDS if infected with HIV. People with two copies (one from each parent) may not become infected at all. The stem cell donor had two copies.

The interesting thing is that the Doctor’s were doing the stem cell treatment not to try and cure the man’s AIDS, but to deal with his leukemia. The effect on his AIDS was just a side benefit. The key word to remember in all of this is that it “appears” to have cured him of AIDS. The truth is there are problems that make this unlikely to be used as a general treatment for AIDS:

While promising, the treatment is unlikely to help the vast majority of people infected with HIV, said Dr. Jay Levy, a professor at the University of California San Francisco, who wrote an editorial accompanying the study. A stem cell transplant is too extreme and too dangerous to be used as a routine treatment, he said.

“About a third of the people die [during such transplants], so it’s just too much of a risk,” Levy said. To perform a stem cell transplant, doctors intentionally destroy a patient’s immune system, leaving the patient vulnerable to infection, and then reintroduce a donor’s stem cells (which are from either bone marrow or blood) in an effort to establish a new, healthy immune system.

Levy also said it’s unlikely that the transplant truly cured the patient in this study. HIV can infect many other types of cells and may be hiding out in the patient’s body to resurface at a later time, he said.

“This type of virus can infect macrophages (another type of white blood cell that expresses CCR5) and other cells, like the brain cells, and it could live a lifetime. But if it can’t spread, you never see it—but it’s there and it could do some damage,” he said. “It’s not the kind of approach that you could say, ‘I’ve cured you.’ I’ve eliminated the virus from your body.”

Still, it holds some promise in at least some situations and it opens up an avenue of research that could bear fruit someday in the fight against AIDS. With a disease like AIDS you take your victories where you can get them.

5 thoughts on “Stem cells appear to have cured AIDS in a test subject, but there’s a catch.

  1. Interesting to see this post, my son is having a SCT at the end of the month.

    What an interesting case, I wonder what type of leukemia he had. Either way this guy sounds like he has some damn good luck.

    “About a third of the people die [during such transplants], so it’s just too much of a risk,” Levy said.

    I’m guessing if the patient was a fairly good match to the donor, that the survivability rate would be much higher.

  2. The guy had a bone marrow transplant to cure his leukaemia. Yes it is a stem cell transplant, but not in the way these news feeds are intimating. What happens is that you end up with the immune system of the host, hence the side effect with respect to his HIV. The procedure is not without it’s risks, such as graft-versus host disease (rejection) and a weakened immune system for a long time while the body adjusts putting it at risk of things we would take for granted.

    I wish your son the best of luck with his transplant RJHoule and hope he recovers. A good friend of mine did not, he succumb to a fungal chest infection 6 months after the transplant.

  3. Thanks Steve, and sorry about your friend. I am told that due to the cold, dry air in my local, that the chances of complication due to infection are greatly reduced. Even still, he is currently fighting relapsed acute myeloid leukemia, so his chances of this being a cure is not very good. Not much can be said other than cancer sucks.

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