Thanks to adult stem cells, man free of the AIDS virus

By Dave Andrusko

Understandably, all the attention in response to an article posted Monday in the journal “Nature” was captured in the headline in many ensuing stories: “Second HIV patient is in long-term remission, a decade after the first.”

The patient, “whose identity hasn’t been disclosed, was able to stop taking antiretroviral drugs, with no sign of the virus returning 18 months later,” reported Matthew Warren.

What was completely ignored is the source of the stem cells that were responsible for this long-term remission from HIV infection—they were adult stem cells. As we have written many multiples of times, adult stem cells carry none of the ethical baggage associated with using stem cells from aborted human embryos and are not only effective, but have been in wide use for years. In fact, adult stem cells are the only successful stem cell in clinical practice, now treating more than 70,000 patients a year.

Whenever the topic of stem cells comes up, I turn to Dr. David Prentice, Vice President and Research Director of the Charlotte Lozier Institute. Dr. Prentice explained how

This provides another example of the utility of adult stem cell transplants to help heal, in this case from HIV/AIDS as well as cancer. It’s really just a standard adult stem cell transplant, starting with donor bone marrow adult stem cells, to treat a type of blood cancer.

BUT because the doctors know that the patient also has HIV/AIDS, the donor is very carefully chosen not only for a tissue transplant match but also because the donor cells lack the protein “flag” (called CCR5) on the cell surface to which the HIV virus attaches. After ridding the body of the cancerous cells, the result is that not only are the blood-forming stem cells replaced, but the new blood cells produced by the transplanted stem cells can no longer be infected with HIV, ending the virus’ deadly reign in the patient’s body.

The unidentified man contracted HIV in 2003 and developed Hodgkin lymphoma in 2012 and that year “agreed to a stem cell transplant to treat the cancer in 2016,” according to Carla K. Johnson of the Associated Press.

“With the right kind of donor, his doctors figured, the London patient might get a bonus beyond treating his cancer: a possible HIV cure,” Johnson writes.

“The patient received the stem cell transplant from a donor with a rare CCR5 mutation that allows HIV resistance. About 1 percent of people descended from northern Europeans have inherited the mutation from both parents and are immune to most HIV. The donor had this double copy of the mutation,” she explained. “The transplant changed the London patient’s immune system, giving him the donor’s mutation and HIV resistance.”

To be clear, while a major development, this is not generally applicable to every AIDS patient. As Johnson explained in her story, “Donors must be a genetic match to recipients, and there are very few people who also naturally carry two copies of the disabled CCR5 gene, which limits the number of potential transplants.”

Dr. Prentice agreed, but added this critical reminder: “These latest results validate the idea of using adult stem cells as a clinical intervention for HIV infection.”