German researchers working with stem cell therapy have claimed they have cured an American patient with HIV and leukemia. Experts are wary of accepting the development at its face value and caution that there is a need for further research. Dr David Scadden, a co-director of the Harvard University Stem Cell Institute added, “Cured is a strong word. But this is very encouraging… from all indications, there was no residual virus… It’s as good an outcome as one could hope for.”
AIDS until now is incurable and at best can be only held off with anti-retroviral drugs. Dr Margaret Fischl, a pioneering AIDS researcher at the University of Miami thus feels this is a “functional cure.” She said, “It’s on the level and a very remarkable case. But would we do this with an HIV patient? No.” She said the treatment was too radical and its side effects too harsh for general use but assured that this would open new approaches to AIDS management.
Citing this case Dr Gero Huetter and colleagues at the Charite-University Medicine Berlin explained that 44-year-old American, Timothy Brown in 2007 volunteered to undergo stem cell therapy in Berlin to fight his leukemia. He had concomitant HIV. The team decided to perform a stem-cell transplant that also might help against his HIV. They used stem cells from a donor who was naturally resistant to the virus. The donor for that transplant carried a rare mutation in a gene that increases immunity against the most common form of HIV. Since February last year Mr. Brown has been taken off antiretroviral drugs but his HIV had not rebounded in the first 20 months after the transplant. The early reports came in The New England Journal of Medicine. This week’s report comes in the journal Blood where authors declare that after so many months the cell counts are normal.
The patient was infected with more than one type of HIV. Dr. Fischl added, “What they are hoping is that the chemotherapy and radiation therapy wiped out that form, too. Could that patient still rebound with HIV in the future? Yes.” She also said that the treatment carries with it a 30 percent risk of death. She said, “That he was young and got through it is quite remarkable… I would never give this to a healthy patient. I could never justify it. If you use this therapy, 30 percent of your patients could die from the intervention.”
In 2009, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the U.S. National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases had explained that the procedure was too expensive and risky to become a common practice but it may help in the development of gene therapies to treat HIV.
Dr. Robert Gallo of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland, who helped discover the human immunodeficiency virus that causes AIDS also said, “It’s not practical and it can kill people… It is possibly a cure, that’s for sure, you won’t know for absolute sure until the person dies and undergoes extreme PCR (genetic) analysis of post-mortem tissue.”