Ten years ago, an unnamed American woman was diagnosed with HIV. Like the tens of thousands of people who test positive in the US each year, she faced a lifetime of anti-retroviral therapies to keep the virus from obliterating her immune system. The patient is part of an extremely exclusive club of individuals who appear to have purged the virus entirely from their bodies. What’s more, the means to her cure gives hope to dozens of patients like her each year.
A team of researchers in the US working as part of the International Maternal Pediatric Adolescent AIDS Clinical Trials Network recently reported the middle-aged patient to be virus-free more than four years after a revolutionary treatment for blood cancer. Just two other cases of total HIV remission have ever been satisfactorily confirmed, both following transplants of bone marrow from donors with HIV-blocking mutations in the treatment of leukemia.
Had the woman been White, she would have had a higher chance of finding a tissue match within the Caucasian-dominated library of willing donors. Mixed-race heritage, specialists turned to another source of stem cells that could potentially provide the seeds for new, healthy bone marrow – umbilical cord blood. Blood from a newborn’s umbilicus doesn’t require a perfect immunological match between the host and donor. Since the 1990s, more than 35,000 leukemia patients around the world have received a cord blood donation