The method involves umbilical cord blood, which is more widely available than adult stem cells and doesn’t need to be matched as closely to the recipient. Researchers spoke about the method at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Denver, and discussed the woman, who was given the aforementioned cord blood to cure her leukemia from a partially matched donor, plus blood from a relative.
“The fact that she’s mixed race, and that she’s a woman, that is really important scientifically and really important in terms of the community impact,” said AIDS expert Dr. Steven Deeks of University of California, San Francisco.
Deeks, who was not involved in the research, said such stories provide “inspiration to the field and perhaps the road map,” but he doesn’t expect it to be common. Across the world, 73 percent of the nearly 38 million people with AIDS are receiving treatment, and bone marrow transplants are usually offered to people who have tried all other options.
The two other people who have been cured in the past were men, and had received bone marrow transplants from people who had a mutation that blocks HIV infection, which has only been identified in about 20,000 donors. Both men suffered serious side effects as a result.
Dr. JingMei Hsu, the new patient’s physician at Weill Cornell Medicine, said the woman—who was diagnosed with HIV in 2013 and acute myelogenous leukemia in 2017—left the hospital 17 days after her treatment as her relative’s cells combining with the umbilical cord blood seemed to have made a difference in dealing with side effects. Experts are not clear on why cord blood stem cells work well, but think such cells could be more capable of adapting to new environments, per Dr. Koen Van Besien, director of the transplant service at Weill Cornell.
“Umbilical stem cells are attractive,” Deeks said. “There’s something magical about these cells and something magical perhaps about the cord blood in general that provides an extra benefit.”