Add one more name to the ever growing list of diseases that have been defeated by stem cell treatments: HIV. That’s right, according to a recent report in the New England Journal of Medicine, a stem cell transplant performed in Germany has unexpectedly removed all signs of HIV from a 42 year old American patient. The unnamed white male was treated two years ago for Leukemia with a dose of donor stem cells and his HIV RNA count has dropped to zero and remained there since. While the treatment was for Leukemia, Dr. Gero Hutter and colleagues at the Charite Universitatsmedizen in Berlin had selected the stem cell donor for his HIV resistant genes. While there are still many questions unanswered, this is the first such case of stem cells treating HIV that has been reported in a NEJM-caliber publication. Ladies and gentlemen, this is not a “cure” for HIV/AIDS, but it is certainly a remarkable and promising find. There’s more you need to know about the situation, so read on.
Like so many instances of “miraculous medicine”, this case has its complexities. First, the patient was being treated for Leukemia, not HIV. The patient had been HIV positive for ten years before the first stem cell treatment. His HIV medication was actually treating his condition fairly well, and it wasn’t until a round of chemotherapy (for the Leukemia) raised his HIV count that it looked to be troublesome. The original transplant from two years ago may have dropped his HIV count, but his Leukemia returned a year later. Another dose of stem cells was given and this seems to have treated the cancer as well as maintain its effect on the HIV.
Secondly, their’s the DNA of the donor to consider. Due to a genetic mutation (CCR5), the donor has a resistance to the HIV virus. Such resistance occurs in 1-3% of white males of European descent. Furthermore, while a single copy of this CCR5 gene can grant some resistance to HIV, the donor had two copies, which often leads to a good chance of full resistance to the virus. Dr. Hutter and colleagues were fully aware of the CCR5 in the donor when selecting him.