Stem cell transplants, more commonly referred to as bone marrow transplants, may offer a cure to people living with HIV/AIDS, according to data released in July at the International AIDS Conference (IAC) in Washington, D.C. A noted Boston physician and scientist presented his findings two weeks ago at the forum and highlighted proven results that demonstrated how two HIV-positive patients may have been cured of their infection due to a successful stem cell transplant procedure.
Timothy Henrich, an infectious disease specialist at Brigham and Women’s Hospital in Boston, and his colleagues highlighted the cases of two men who experienced outstanding results following a stem cell transplant surgery. The procedure, along with a combination of chemotherapy and antiretroviral treatment, resulted in an undetectable blood- and cell-based HIV virus. The two men also showed a drop in their HIV antibody levels. The results immediately evoked the question from observers, “Is a stem cell transplant a cure for HIV/AIDS?”
“The data is encouraging and there is a substantial and sustained reduction in the HIV reservoir,” Henrich said during his presentation. “The declining HIV-specific antibody levels provide further evidence for minimal persistence of HIV antigen.” However, Henrich and his colleagues stopped short of calling the treatment a cure-all for HIV.
Similar to the success of stem cell transplants in the treatment of people living with the debilitating illness sickle cell anemia, a blood disorder that affects millions of people, the continued promotion of a stem cell transplant as an effective treatment and near cure for HIV/AIDS treatment will prompt controversy and discussion. One physician at Harvard Medical School involved in the stem cell research project said, “We’re being very careful to refer to our patients as not being functionally cured.”
Dozens of bloggers at various websites, including several targeted to people living with HIV/AIDS, lauded, criticized and disputed the new findings. Jay wrote, “I just pray for a second chance at having an HIV-free life. This virus is nothing less than a monster that needs to be destroyed.”
Keith wrote, “While it may be premature, it is very encouraging and these types of tests seem to be much more helpful than the millions of phase 1 tests.”
Melanie Thompson of Atlanta posted, “It’s too soon for us to use the word ‘cure’ for those two patients who are still on antiretroviral therapy. Others who have had stem cell transplants in the past have not been cured.”