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Marrow transplant may have rid patient of HIV

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World AIDS Day

A cancer patient with HIV may have been cleared of the virus after receiving a bone marrow transplant from an HIV-resistant donor, thought to be the second such case after a bone marrow transplant, according to research published in the journal Nature on Tuesday.

The patient, whose identity was not disclosed, stopped taking antiretroviral drugs 16 months after the transplant, and the virus has not been detected during an additional 18 months, according to the study.

In the research, led by Ravindra Gupta, an infectious diseases physician at the University of Cambridge in the United Kingdom, the patient received bone marrow stem cells from a donor with a rare genetic mutation known as “CCR5 delta 32”, which produces immunity to HIV infection, according to Nature.

The first such case of an HIV patient being cleared of the virus after a bone marrow transplant happened a decade ago to Timothy Brown, known as the “Berlin patient”, who is still free of the virus.

“The breakthrough suggests the first case was not a one-off and could pave the way for future treatments,” Nature said in a release on its website.

Gupta described his patient as “functionally cured” and “in remission”. But he cautioned, “It’s too early to say he’s cured,” according to a Reuters report.

The procedure is expensive, complex and risky, and will not be a common method to cure all patients with HIV, the report said.

The number of people living with HIV in the world is estimated at 37 million, according to the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS. In China, the number of people living with HIV was estimated at 1.25 million as of the end of last year, and the number of new cases is around 80,000 a year, according to the National Health Commission.

Although it is generally thought that HIV/AIDS cannot be cured, many patients with the virus can live a mostly normal life with anti-viral treatment that keeps the virus at a low level.

Wu Zunyou, chief epidemiologist at the Chinese Center for Disease Control and Prevention, said the latest study done in Britain shows the possibility of curing HIV/AIDS through stem-cell transplants and is a ray of hope to those living with HIV.

“However, it is still too early to say the method can by copied and promoted extensively to treat people with HIV,” Wu said.

A big hurdle in such research is the difficulty of finding donors with the CCR5 delta 32 genetic mutation, given that the percentage of people with the mutation is very low among the total population, he said.

“Besides, there are different subtypes of HIV, which require different coreceptors to produce an infection,” he said. “Other HIV coreceptors exist besides CCR5, so such a method will not be effective in treating HIV if the virus infects through other coreceptors,” he said. Coreceptors create a docking area on cells for HIV infection.

Wu Hao, a professor of infectious diseases at Beijing Youan Hospital, said the research is important and may have value in the search for a cure for HIV patients. Some Chinese researchers are also conducting similar research, he said.