HIV Cure on Horizon: Blood from umbilical cord holds hope


There has never been a more optimistic time in the world of HIV and AIDS research than the past few years. 

New breakthroughs have brought the scientific community a new understanding of the challenges that must be overcome to find a cure for the AIDS-causing virus. This has resulted in growing confidence that an HIV cure is on the horizon.

Although it may sound a bit unrealistic for people to talk of curing HIV, Spanish scientists have discovered a new technique using blood transplants from the umbilical cord of people with genetic resistance to HIV, which could provide a future treatment option in the battle against the virus.

The technique has already reportedly been successful, having cured a patient in just three months and the Spanish medical professionals are optimistic that they can beat the AIDS-causing virus.

According to a Spanish news site, The Local, five years ago an infected 37-year-old man from Barcelona got cured after receiving a blood transplant from an umbilical cord.

Although the man unfortunately died of cancer just three years later, after developing lymphoma, the Spanish medical team involved remains committed to the technique, and consider the work to be a breakthrough in the battle against HIV and related conditions.

Medical doctors in Barcelona initially attempted the technique using the precedent of Timothy Brown, an HIV patient who developed leukaemia before receiving experimental treatment in Berlin, Germany. Brown was given bone marrow from a donor who carried the resistance mutation from HIV.

Reports have it that CCR5 Delta 35 mutation affects a protein in white blood cells, and provides an estimated one percent of the human population with high resistance to infection from HIV.

After Brown’s cancer treatment, the HIV virus had also disappeared.

In the case of the so-called ‘Barcelona patient’, doctors had already tried to treat his lymphoma with chemotherapy as well as an auto-transplant of stem cells.

They looked for a suitable bone marrow donor but could not find one, so they turned to another answer.

“We suggested a transplant of blood from an umbilical cord but from someone who had the mutation because we knew from ‘the Berlin patient’ that as well as [ending] the cancer, we could also eradicate HIV,” explained Rafael Duarte, the director of the Haematopoietic Transplant Programme at the Catalan Oncology Institute in Barcelona.

So, what happens is that before a transplant of this nature, a patient’s blood cells are destroyed with chemotherapy and are replaced with new cells, incorporating the mutation which means the HIV virus can no longer attach itself to them.

In this case, the medical team used stem cells from another donor to accelerate the regeneration process.  Just 11 days after the transplant, the patient in Barcelona was said to have experienced recovery and three months on it was found that he no longer had the HIV virus in his system.

Despite the patient’s unfortunate death from cancer, the process has now opened the way to an ambitious project, with the backing of Spain’s National Transplant Organisation.

The world’s first clinical trials of umbilical cord blood transplants for HIV patients with blood cancers will start in March 2015. 

Javier Martinez, a virologist from the Irsicaixa Research Foundation, was quoted by Spanish daily El Mundo stating that the programme is designed to help first and foremost HIV patients suffering from cancer, but “this therapy does allow us to speculate about a cure for HIV”, he added. 

So, let us hold our breath and put our faith in science that the planned clinical trials of the blood transplants from the umbilical cord of people with genetic resistance to HIV could be the key to the cure of HIV and AIDS.

November 2014
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