In a First, Woman May Have Been Cured of HIV

The process was similar to those the men who went before her underwent
By Kate Seamons,  Newser Staff
Posted Feb 15, 2022 2:55 PM CST
4th Patient, This Time a Woman, Likely Cured of HIV
This 2012 colorized electron microscope image made available by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases shows a single human immunodeficiency virus, center, as it was budding from a human immune cell, which the virus had infected, and within which the HIV virus had been replicated.   (NIAID via AP)

(Newser) – Tuesday brought big news on the HIV front, this time involving a woman who scientists have possibly cured of the disease. NBC News reports she's the first woman in a group that now numbers at most four (two additional women may have been cured, but via their own immune systems, not a medical intervention). The three men who were cured before her managed that feat via stem cell transplants. The "New York patient's" experience was slightly different. The woman was diagnosed with HIV in 2013 and with leukemia four years later, and was treated at New York-Presbyterian Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City. Like the men before her, doctors wanted to inject stem cells that carried a crucial mutation, to a gene called CCR5, that results in HIV resistance.

The Wall Street Journal explains where things deviated: The woman is of mixed race, and no matching stem cell donor turned up that had the CCR5 mutation. That's not surprising: It's typically found in Caucasians from Northern Europe, but even then in only very slim numbers—around 1%. So the team devised a new treatment: a transplant of stem cells in umbilical-cord blood. "Cord blood grafts are much more permissive," says Koen Van Besien, who came up with the procedure. That meant a partial match was sufficient. The transplant happened in 2017; she has had no detectable HIV since stopping antiretrovirals in October 2020.

That the procedure worked signals "the potential to cure dozens of Americans who have both HIV and cancer each year," per the New York Times. Stem cell transplants are expensive and highly risky, so they're not an ethical treatment option for HIV patients who don't require one for another medical reason. As such, it's "still not a feasible strategy for all but a handful of the millions of people living with HIV," one expert tells NBC. (Read more HIV stories.)

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