By using blood transplants from the umbilical cords of individuals with a genetic resistance to HIV, Spanish medical professionals believe they can best exterminate the AIDS-causing virus. The procedure has already been successful, “curing” a patient in just three months.
Five years ago, an infected 37-year-old man from Barcelona began receiving a transplant of blood from an umbilical cord, and he was cured. Although the patient died three years later, it was due to cancer because he developed lymphoma. But his death did not discourage Spanish doctors who believe they have a solution to the AID-causing virus that has infected more than 34 million people globally.
According to Spanish news site The Local, the CCR5 Delta 35 mutation affects the protein in white blood cells and provides one percent of the human population with high resistance to HIV infection.
Following cancer treatment, the HIV virus also disappeared from Timothy Brown, an HIV patient who developed leukaemia before receiving experimental treatment in Berlin. He was the initial subject for the technique, and he was given bone marrow from a donor who carried resistance to mutation from HIV.
Spanish doctors attempted to treat the lymphoma of the “Barcelona patient” with chemotherapy and an auto-transplant of the cells, but they were unable to find him a suitable bone marrow.
“We suggested a transplant of blood from an umbilical cord but from someone who had the mutation because we knew from ‘the Berlin patient’ that as well as [ending] the cancer, we could also eradicate HIV,” Rafael Duarte, the director of the Haematopoietic Transplant Programme at the Catalan Oncology Institute in Barcelona, explains to The Local.
Prior to such a procedure, a patient’s blood cells are destroyed with chemotherapy before they’re replaced with new cells, incorporating the mutation, which means the HIV virus can no longer attache itself to an individual. Then, for the Barcelona patient, the medical team used stem cells from another donor in order to accelerate the regeneration process.
Eleven days later, that patient had experienced recovery, and three months after the transplant, it was discovered that he no longer had the HIV virus in his body.
While the Barcelona patient unfortunately succumbed to death from cancer, the procedure led to the development of a new, ambitious project; one that’s backed by Spain’s National Transplant Organization.
Javier Martínez, a virologist from the research foundation Irsicaixa, stressed that the process is primarily designed to assist HIV patients suffering from cancer, but “this therapy does allow us to speculate about a cure for HIV.” In the US, similar clinical trial was approved in March 2015 by the Food and Drug Administration.
The method, developed by Sangamo Bioscience, involves getting stem cells from HIV-infected patients and using a gene editing tool to turn the stem cells into white blood cell with the CCR5 mutation. CCR5 is a protein that interferes with the virus’s ability to latch onto blood cells.
Calimmune, a drug research company, previously tested the method in early human clinical trials with only 12 patients. The procedure was found tolerable and with low risk of adverse side effects.
“Although the genetically modified cells lasted up to four year inside the patients, because of the small number of patients, the trial was considered not large enough to test the procedure’s effectiveness”, reports Medicaldaily.