The transplantation of special stem cells from umbilical cord blood has very likely cured a New York patient of both her leukemia and her HIV disease. This is reported by US scientists in the journal “Cell”. It would be the first successful treatment of a non-white woman.

So far, three cases of a cure from HIV have been known: The corresponding patients in Berlin, London and Düsseldorf all received a special stem cell transplant due to a parallel cancer. Those stem cells had a specific gene mutation called CCR5Δ32. This mutation ensures that there is no docking site for HIV on the immune cells. Without this, the virus cannot find an entry point and cannot infect the cells, which makes carriers of the mutation almost resistant to the pathogen.

Match as close as possible is crucial

According to lead author Yvonne Bryson, these carriers include only about one percent of the white population, and the mutation is even rarer in other groups. In a stem cell transplant, however, it is crucial that the donor and recipient match as closely as possible, Bryson explained in a press conference on the study. “It is extremely rare for people of different races or races to find a sufficiently matched unrelated adult donor.”

The team therefore decided to transplant stem cells with the rare mutation from umbilical cord blood to the non-white patient. Such cells, which come from voluntary donations and are collected in appropriate blood banks, are still very immature, which prevents the otherwise frequent rejection reactions.

The transplantation took place in 2017 – in a procedure that is not like a surgical operation, but rather like a blood transfusion that takes place after chemotherapy and radiation, explained the doctor Jingmei Hsu. In fact, both the patient’s HIV infection and leukemia were successfully contained.

Patient “travels and enjoys her life”

The antiviral HIV medication could be discontinued 37 months after the operation. “Today the patient is doing very well, traveling, visiting her family and enjoying her life,” Hsu said.

Although no virus remains can be detected, the doctors do not want to speak of a complete cure. This security would only come in the next few years. Due to the many risks, such a stem cell transplant is only an option in the context of the treatment of other life-threatening diseases such as cancer.

Nevertheless, the method expands the circle of potential patients, according to the study authors. They advocate establishing cord blood banks across the board, encouraging donors, and then testing the donated blood for the CCR5Δ32 mutation.