Timothy Brown, a forty-two year old American man living in Berlin, Germany was given a bone marrow transplant in 2007 to treat leukemia. The transplant — which treats leukemia by essentially rebooting the body’s immune system and creating new white blood cells —also had the benefit of wiping out the HIV infection.
Just following World AIDS Day, and three and a half years later, the patient remains HIV-free, which suggests he is cured of the disease, the researchers said.
“I’m extremely excited about the result,” said Jerome Zack, a researcher at the University of California, Los Angeles, who studies HIV infection and was not involved in the study. “It suggests that at least in this one individual, there’s a long-term benefit to this approach.”
In the transplant, the patient received bone marrow, which contains blood stem cells, from a donor with a rare mutation. The mutation essentially prevents the most common form of HIV from getting inside certain immune cells. Afterward, the virus appeared to stop replicating in the patient’s body, and he no longer needed HIV antiretroviral medication.
The findings for Brown’s case were published in the journal Blood this week where the study’s author Kristina Allers writes, “Our results strongly suggest that cure of HIV has been achieved in this patient.”
The treatment was not without side effects. Brown developed neurological problems that caused temporary blindness and memory problems as well as difficulty with coordination and speech.
“Ultimately, the results would need to be reproduced before researchers could know whether this was an option for treating HIV,” Zack said. “And, practically, finding donors would be a challenge — only one percent of Northern Europeans are known to have this particular mutation.”
However rare the donors may be, Dr. Gero Hutter, the lead doctor overseeing Brown’s treatment, said his team has “overthrown the dogma that HIV can never be cured. Something like this is the greatest thing one can achieve in medical research.”
With President Obama’s Executive Order 13505 removing the Bush barriers on stem cell research, American researchers can also continue working for answers in this global epidemic. It is important that HIV/AIDS viruses are treated as a global issue as it affects millions, if not billions, worldwide.
Indeed the findings in this particular case suggest a promising cure for the virus that has been perceived as a death sentence. While more cases are necessary to verify the results, a cure is likely before our eyes. Perhaps there is a key to closing Pandora’s box.
Photo Credit: Trygve Utstumo via creative commons