Excitement, Caution Around Woman 'Cured' of HIV

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Wednesday February 16, 2022

Researchers believe a woman treated with stem cells from umbilical blood may have been cured of HIV — but it's not a treatment that will benefit many people living with the virus.

Still, researchers hope that what looks like a new success will open the way to eventually treating "several dozen" patients "annually," NBC News reported.

"Their patient stepped into a rarified club that includes three men whom scientists have cured, or very likely cured, of HIV," NBC News detailed.

The individual — referred to in reports as the "New York patient" — had received a stem cell transplant as treatment for acute myeloid leukemia, a NIAID article posted to hiv.gov explained.

Her case was similar to that of the "Berlin patient," an American man named Timothy Ray Brown, whose cure had also been a side effect of treatment for AML," NBC News noted.

Brown "received a stem cell transplant from a donor who had a rare genetic abnormality that grants the immune cells that HIV targets natural resistance to the virus," NBC News detailed.

"The strategy in Brown's case, which was first made public in 2008, has since apparently cured HIV in two other people," including the "New York patient."

"But it has also failed in a string of others," NBC News pointed out.

A second individual thought to have been cured through stem cell transplantation, a Hispanic man known as the "London patient," "has been in HIV remission for more than 30 months," the NIAID article said.

But despite these success stories, it's not a treatment option that can be offered to everyone.

"It is unethical, experts stress, to attempt an HIV cure through a stem cell transplant — a toxic, sometimes fatal procedure — in anyone who does not have a potentially fatal cancer or other condition that already makes them a candidate for such risky treatment," NBC News explained.

That's not to say that the new success was accidental. ABC News related that the "New York patient" (who remains anonymous, but who is described as "a middle-aged woman of mixed race") "was genetically matched with umbilical cord stem cells that contained an HIV-resistant mutation," and "was part of a study that began in 2015 designed to monitor outcomes of 25 people with HIV in the U.S. who underwent a transplant, according to the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases."

Dr. Anthony Fauci, an expert in infectious diseases and HIV treatment, noted that, given the specifics of the three known success stories, "It is not practical to think that this is something that's going to be widely available." Added Dr. Fauci: "It's more of a proof of concept."

One of the things that makes this sort of treatment so dangerous is that it entails destroying a person's entire immune system and then rebuilding it from scratch using donated bone marrow or stem cells. On top of that, the patient must be matched to donors possessing the natural genetic variation that provides protection from the virus. The sheer numerical improbability of such a match means that the technique is unlikely ever to become a standard treatment for people living with HIV.

Even so, in the rare instances when such treatment is possible, it might become more frequently used. Dr. Yvonne Bryson, an infectious disease expert with UCLA who was part of the research team who announced the new success, estimated that eventually, "approximately at least 50 [people] per year that may benefit from this," ABC News imparted.

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.