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A woman has been cured of HIV using a groundbreaking umbilical cord blood transplant, scientists say

A woman who received an HIV-immune infant’s blood has been cured of HIV.

AP Photo/Ronald Kabuubi

  • A woman has reportedly been “cured” of HIV, using a novel technique involving newborn blood.
  • The technique is seemingly gentler than stem-cell transplantation, the only known way that people have been cured before of the virus that causes AIDS.  
  • Only 2 other people, both men, have been medically cured of HIV. Scientists have previously reported 2 other women to be naturally virus-free. 

An HIV-positive woman appears to have been cured of the virus, using an unusual, and seemingly far more gentle transplantation technique than ever before, which involved umbilical cord blood sourced from a newborn.

Details of her case, announced at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections Tuesday, were first reported in The New York Times.

“This case is the first to use cord blood cells, and the first to treat a woman and someone who identifies as mixed-race,” Weill Cornell Medicine, where the patient was treated, told Insider in a statement.

The umbilical cord blood recipient recieved her blood transplant in August 2017, from a donor with a genetic mutation that blocks HIV. That mutation is far more common in people of European heritage, which can make it hard to find well-matched stem-cell transplant donors for non-white patients. The new case suggests hope that more patients of diverse backgrounds may be able to be cured of HIV in the future, though experts stress the treatment isn’t likely to become commonplace.  

The woman recieved her blood cell transplant in order to treat high-risk acute myeloid leukemia. At that time, she also recieved some blood stem cells from a first-degree relative.

“The transplant from the relative is like a bridge that got her through to the point of the cord blood being able to take over,” Dr. Marshall Glesby, an infectious disease expert at Weill Cornell, who’s part of her research team, told the Times. 

The use of cord blood, which is more adaptable than adult blood, makes it less important for the donor and recipient to be very closely matched, immunologically. (This donor and patient, for instance, were unrelated.) 

“The patient eventually stopped taking antiretroviral drugs to suppress her HIV infection, and so far, has been off the HIV drugs for 14 months, with no signs of HIV re-emergence,” Weill Cornell said in the statement. This indicates “a likely cure, although physicians at this stage prefer to call it long-term remission. She has also been leukemia-free for more than four years.”

Previously, the only people who’ve been confirmed as cured of HIV have been two traditional stem-cell transplant recipients, known as the “Berlin Patient” (Timothy Ray Brown), and the “London Patient” (Adam Castillejo).

But, over the past two years, at least two additional cases of what are thought to be natural HIV cures have surfaced.

The first woman, 66-year-old Californian Laureen Willenberg, is thought to be an “elite controller” of the virus. Another woman, diagnosed with HIV in 2013 in Argentina, similarly, has no trace of the virus in her body that scientists can find. Her daughter, born in 2020, is HIV-free, a feat that is usually only accomplished through antiretroviral therapy (ART) drug treatments during pregnancy. 

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