Doctors treating a patient’s leukemia with a bone marrow transplant have discovered an astonishing side effect. The patient is now HIV-free.
Timothy Ray Brown, a 42-year-old American living in Berlin, Germany, has had no presence of the AIDS virus in his system for more than 600 days. In 2008, doctors replaced Brown’s bone marrow cells with those from a donor who has a genetic mutation that makes his cells immune to almost all strains of HIV. Doctors instructed Brown to stop taking his antiretroviral drugs before the procedure, because they believed the powerful drugs would weaken the new cells’ ability to survive in Brown. Doctors planned to start Brown on his antiretroviral drugs once HIV reemerged in the blood. That never happened.
However, scientists do not see this procedure as a universal cure. Finding a donor with this genetic mutation is very rare. According to Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has studied HIV/AIDS for 30 years: “It’s hard enough to get a good compatible match for a transplant like this. But you also have to find a compatible donor that has this genetic defect, and this defect is only found in 1 percent of the Caucasian population and zero percent of the black population.”
Another problem is that not every individual would respond to the treatment. The treatment is painful, expensive, and complicated. Patients undergoing treatment must begin a new drug regimen.
“This patient is trading one poison for another. He may not have to be on antiretroviral drugs anymore, but he has to take immunosuppressant drugs now to prevent the rejection of his transplant cell,” Dr. Fauci explained.
However, not all doctors are hopeless about the procedure. Dr. Thomas Quinn, director of Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health, said that this treatment should qualify as the first HIV cure of sorts. “This was a new report that looked much deeper into whether HIV could still be present or lurking in the body in some way, not cured, and since the transplant, he remains viral free and his cells appear to be resistant to infection,” he said. “It gives hope to the millions of people infected with HIV that a cure is a feasible option in the future.”
Although this is not the long sought after miracle cure, it does offer hope to other treatments utilizing adult stem cells.