You probably heard earlier this week that doctors at Germany’s Charite Universitatsmedizin hospital announced they had “cured” HIV in a cancer patient who had received a stem cell transplant. Timothy Ray Brown traveled to the Berlin hospital for treatment of his acute myeloid leukemia. He went through two separate chemotherapy rounds, two stem cell transplants, and developed a neurological problem which caused temporary blindness and memory loss. The stem cell transplant treatment he received is particularly arduous; only 70% of patients survive each transplant, and those who survive have to take anti-rejection drugs for the rest of their lives.
Dr. Gero Hutter followed a unique strategy when looking for a bone marrow donor: he sought out a match who also had a rare genetic mutation called CCR5 delta32 that makes a person more resistant to HIV by crippling a receptor on the surface of T-cells. The mutation is found in about 1% of Caucasians (and 0% of Asians and Africans). People with one copy of the mutation take longer to develop AIDS, while people who inherit a copy from both parents might be immune to HIV (oddly, they aren’t signing up to be injected with HIV to test this). The stem cell donor in this case had two copies of the mutation.
It’s been three years since Brown received the transplants, and doctors announced this week that he appears to have been cured. After extensive testing, they’ve been unable to find any signs of HIV in his system. Before taking Chris Rock’s suggestion and having wild group sex in the streets — not that we would ever discourage this — it should be noted the patient’s HIV may be dormant, rather than completely eliminated. Also worth considering is that leukemia can cause a false positive on HIV tests, so there’s a chance the patient only had leukemia all along. Also, going through chemotherapy to destroy all your bone marrow then receiving a stem cell treatment which kills three out of every ten patients is both expensive and not fun, so keep baggin’ it.