This past Tuesday, April 23, doctors from the University of Minnesota performed a stem cell transplant on a 12-year-old boy living with both HIV and leukemia, in hopes of curing him of both diseases. Because the donor's CD4 cells contain a mutation of the CCR5 receptor, which makes the cells resistant to HIV, the doctors are hoping the boy will also become resistant to HIV.
The procedure is similar to the one that Timothy Brown underwent, which cured him of his HIV and leukemia. However, instead of using bone marrow like in Brown's case, the doctors here transplanted umbilical cord blood, which they say is easier to match.
John Wagner, M.D., one of the boy's doctors, explained in an interview with KSTP-TV Channel 5 Eyewitness News:
Why cord blood? This is the revolutionary aspect to this. We have cord blood units that are collected from a delivery -- the blood that's left over in a placenta. These cells are very forgiving, in a sense. They don't have to be perfectly matched. So what is great about what we've done today is the fact that we can actually find donors for almost everyone. Now all we have to do is type for this variant -- the CCR5 variant that confers the resistance to HIV. And this could really tremendously change the outcome for many patients with HIV, particularly if they have a malignancy too.
Now you say, how does this help others with HIV? And the answer is, well, not at first. We first have to show and demonstrate the safety of this approach and we have to demonstrate the effectiveness of this approach. We know that it's worked once but we have to show it again and again and again. If indeed it all pans out the way we believe it's going to pan out, then it's going to hopefully lead to a whole new area of research. Can we, for example, genetically modify our own stem cells so that they're no longer capable of being infected by HIV? And that's what's going to be the tremendous breakthrough in the future. This is a stepping stone to get us there -- proof of concept.
The procedure went smoothly and the boy is reportedly doing well. Over the next following months, the doctors will continue to treat the boy with HIV antiretrovirals and monitor his health. If the boy does end up testing negative for HIV, they will then take him off treatment. If he continues to test negative over an extended period of time, then it could be another case of an HIV cure.
Watch KSTP-TV Channel 5 Eyewitness News' interview with John Wagner, M.D., and Michael Verneris, M.D., after they had completed the transplant.
Warren Tong is the research editor for TheBody.com and TheBodyPRO.com.