HIV patient 'cured' with stem cell procedure

The Miami HeraldDecember 15, 2010 

Doctors in Berlin, working with an American patient with both HIV and leukemia, have declared in a peer-reviewed journal that they believe they have cured both illnesses. It would be the first time an HIV patient has been cured.

The procedure is creating a buzz in the HIV academic community in the United States. Experts here call the development encouraging, but warn that years of work remain before the treatment could lead to a general therapy against HIV.

" 'Cured' is a strong word. But this is very encouraging,'' said Dr. David Scadden, co-director of the Harvard University Stem Cell Institute. "From all indications, there was no residual virus. It's as good an outcome as one could hope.''

HIV/AIDS, first recognized in the United States in 1981, was almost always a death sentence until the mid-1990s, when powerful anti-retroviral drugs were developed to hold it mostly in check.

"I would call this a functional cure,'' said Dr. Margaret Fischl, pioneering AIDS researcher at the University of Miami. "It's on the level and a very remarkable case. But would we do this with an HIV patient? No.''

The treatment is too radical, its side effects too harsh for general use, Fischl said. Still, it opens up new avenues for researchers to create more practical cures, she said.

In 2007, a 44-year-old American named Timothy Ray Brown, who had both HIV and leukemia, was set to undergo stem cell therapy in Berlin to fight his leukemia. But Dr. Gero Huetter and colleagues at Charité -- University Medicine Berlin decided to perform a stem cell transplant that also might help against his HIV.

They used stem cells from a donor who had an inherited gene mutation that left his body without the gene receptors involved in contracting HIV, making him naturally resistant to the virus.

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