U to try historic HIV cure

U doctors will attempt to cure a boy of HIV and leukemia.

by Kia Farhang

A team of University of Minnesota doctors will attempt a groundbreaking transplant Tuesday to cure a boy of HIV and leukemia.

The procedure is the first of its kind to use umbilical cord blood, which is left in the placenta after a baby is born. A similar transplant, conducted in Germany in 2007, successfully used bone marrow to achieve the same results.

“Cord blood doesn’t have to be as perfectly matched as marrow does,” said Dr. John Wagner, one of three doctors who will be performing the transplant.

That makes it easier to find a sample containing a rare HIV-resistant genetic mutation that is crucial to the transplant.

“We’ve been waiting for this event to occur,” Wagner said. “Once we show the safety of it and its effectiveness, then we may broaden this.”

More than a million Americans had HIV in 2008, according to the National Institutes of Health. Of those, more than 20 percent were unaware of the infection, which suppresses the immune system and causes AIDS.

AIDS first appeared in the U.S. in 1981 and has since become a worldwide epidemic. Curing the disease used to be seen as “an unachievable task,” according to a March article in Nature Reviews Immunology. The first and only known person cured of the infection was Timothy Ray Brown — “the Berlin Patient” — who received the bone-marrow transplant in 2007.

The University team will keep the patient under close watch for the next 100 days to see if the transplant was successful, according to a news release. If it is, the cord blood procedure could be viable for other HIV patients as well.

“If we’re able to show, in a number of patients, that this approach works,” Wagner said, “then I think this is going to compel the field forward.”

He said he hopes the transplant will increase interest in cord-blood banking, which has only been in place since the 1990s.

If the transplant is successful, Wagner said, the patient won’t have to continue taking the antiretroviral drugs necessary to keep HIV at bay.

Those drugs can make patients more vulnerable to other infections and diseases because they suppress the immune system, said Melissa Pavek, a second-year medical student.

“We encounter so many infectious organisms all the time that our immune systems just take care of,” Pavek said. “Patients that are immunosuppressed are more vulnerable to things … that healthy people are able to fight off.”

She said a transplant like this could move science closer to an HIV cure.

“It’s exciting to know that my institution is at the forefront of that kind of research.”