By Ana Lešković and Stéphanie Hamel
February 17th 2022. Earlier this week, researchers at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) in Denver, Colorado presented the case of the third patient to ever cure from HIV following a new treatment. 9to5 asks experts and patients how they received the news.
According to the New York Times, the anonymous patient, who has been treated in the United States, had been diagnosed since 2013. She was under antiretroviral therapy (ART), the most common treatment against HIV, which combines drugs that significantly prevent the virus from replicating.
The patient was given an umbilical cord blood transplant – a novel form of stem cells treatment – in 2017 in order to treat a severe leukemia. Stem cells are the only type of cells that can develop into specialized cells, including cells helping to defend the organism. As a result, the stem cells present in the transplant – which in this case carried a mutation blocking HIV access to cells – became progressively dominant in the patient’s organism. 3 years after the transplant, she stopped ART and a year after that, HIV became undetectable from her blood.
Previously, only two people – known as the Berlin Patient and the London Patient – had fully recovered from HIV. However, in both cases which involved stem cell treatment via bone marrow transplant, the patients suffered from debilitating side effects such as drastic weight loss or severe infections.
9to5 asked Laurent Ciavatti, a Biotech consultant with a background in cell biology, to explain why, according to him, this new cord blood treatment was chosen: “Stem cells are present in small quantities in adults, like in the bone marrow, but in abundant quantities in the fetus and also in the umbilical cord.” He adds that “the cells in the cord are also less likely to react and create a graft rejection. This makes this therapy much more ‘scalable’ than transplantation and decreases the risk to the transplanted patient, of course.”
9to5 asked affected people what the prospect of a total cure, allowing to stop the treatment altogether, meant to them.
Willem* is a member of HIV Vereniging, a Dutch association focused on accompanying HIV positive people in their everyday life with treatment, but also with social aspects such as dealing with the stigma and isolation that they experience. Himself HIV positive, Willem tells us that ART is not only costly (“up to €1200 monthly, covered by insurance”) but also that patients “experience setback when they learn that they have to take the medication for the rest of their lives. When you realize that, it’s quite a bummer.”
However, when asked if the new findings made him and his community hopeful, he replied categorically: “we are really pessimistic, we have seen so many mice recovering from AIDS in the laboratories… We want to see big things. No chemistry miracles.”
Out of the 21,155 people following an HIV treatment with a specialized care center in the Netherlands, 88% use an Antiretroviral Treatment, according to the 2021 H.I.V. Monitoring Report.
*The name has been changed for privacy purposes.