30 million people have died from HIV since the disease was discovered in 1981. Researchers looking to treat the disease that spreads at the rate of 7,000 people per day globally have made dramatic advances — yet a general cure has remained elusive. Now, a new treatment may hold the answer.
In the '90s, anti-retroviral drugs were developed that transformed the disease from a definitive death sentence to something more manageable. Now the illness can be lived with for decades, although treatment is expensive and unrealistic for many. And even then, treating the disease and curing it are two different things.
But in 2011 the news broke about Timothy Ray Brown, the first man to be functionally cured of HIV. Brown had both acute myeloid leukemia and HIV. As the leukemia spread through his bone marrow, he was forced to undergo chemotherapy and then a stem cell transplant. When the disease flared up again, he required another stem cell transplant.
What was unusual about the transplant donor is that he was immune to HIV. (Scientists say 1 percent of Caucasians are immune to the disease.) Although the transplant was to treat the leukemia, an incredible thing happened — the HIV went away.
“He has no replicating virus and he isn’t taking any medication. And he will now probably never have any problems with HIV,” his doctor, Gero Huetter, told Reuters.
Although Brown’s story is encouraging, scientists say that bone marrow transplants can be fatal, and it’s impossible for Brown’s treatment to be used for everyone in the world living with HIV. But more recently alternative treatments, based on the history of Brown, have come to light. One which scientists are optimistic about is the use of cord blood.
Dr. Lawrence Petz, a stem cell transplantation specialist, as well as chief medical officer for StemCyte and president of the Cord Blood Forum, explained that cord blood gives doctors much more flexibility for matching patients with donors — and the treatment could be a viable way of treating many more people.
“At the present time, I feel there’s no other way to cure a reasonable number of patients other than using cord blood,” Petz said.
Late last month a patient in the Netherlands was the first to be treated with this potentially revolutionary method. Like Brown's case, the transplant was done to treat another disease — but doctors decided to use a unit of cord blood that contained the HIV-resistant gene with an aim of curing the HIV as well. A similar surgery is also planned for a patient in Madrid within the month.
“We don’t know the final outcome yet, but we’re very optimistic that the transplant will be of significant benefit to the patient,” Petz said.