A 53-year-old German patient has become the third person to be completely free of the HIV virus thanks to a stem cell transplant, according to a study published in Nature Medicine.
For a long time, an HIV infection was considered incurable. The problem is that the virus can take a dormant form in the genome of infected cells for long periods, making it invisible and inaccessible to antiviral drugs. However, by using stem cell transplants, doctors are finally able to cure some patients completely.
A patient known as the “Düsseldorf patient” has become the third person to be cured of HIV. The patient was treated at the University Hospital Düsseldorf and received stem cells from a healthy donor whose genome contains a mutated form of a gene called CCR5. This mutation makes it impossible for HI viruses to detect and enter human CD4+ T-lymphocytes, their major target cells. In practical terms, this means the virus cannot hide. The other two patients — “Berlin” and “London” — received a similar treatment.
After the transplant, the patient was closely monitored for almost ten years. During this period, the researchers analysed the patient’s blood and tissue samples to detect any possible immune response to the HIV virus or replication of the virus. Shortly after the transplant and for the rest of the monitoring period, the team could not find any evidence that the virus was still present. The patient stopped taking antiviral medication about four years ago, and now, ten years after the transplant, the Düsseldorf patient could be declared cured by the international research consortium.
“This case of curing a chronic HIV infection by stem cell transplantation shows that HIV can, in principle, be cured,” says Prof. Julian Schulze zur Wiesch, DZIF scientist at the University Medical Center Hamburg-Eppendorf and one of the study leads. “In particular, the results of this study are also enormously important for further research into a cure for HIV for the vast majority of people living with HIV for whom stem cell transplantation is not an option.”
Jensen, BE.O., Knops, E., Cords, L. et al. In-depth virological and immunological characterization of HIV-1 cure after CCR5Δ32/Δ32 allogeneic hematopoietic stem cell transplantation. Nat Med (2023). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41591-023-02213-x