Doctors Cure Third HIV Patient with Rare Transplant Procedure

Treatment unlikely to benefit majority of patients — prevention and rapid treatment still key

Jason A. Michael

Doctors have cured a third person living with HIV — the first woman — through an umbilical cord blood transplant.

The patient, who had needed a stem cell transplant to treat her leukemia, is believed to have developed a new HIV-resistant immune system after being genetically matched with umbilical cord stem cells containing an HIV-resistant mutation.

"Today, we reported the third known case of HIV remission and the first woman following a stem cell transplant and using HIV-resistant cells," Dr. Yvonne Bryson, an infectious disease doctor from UCLA, said in a statement.

Bryson led a study that began in 2015 to monitor the outcomes of 25 people with HIV who underwent similar transplants.

"This case is special for several reasons,” said Bryson. “First, our participant was a U.S. woman living with HIV of mixed race, who needed a stem cell transplant for treatment of her leukemia. And she would find a more difficult time finding both a genetic match and one with the HIV-resistant mutation to both cure her cancer and potentially her HIV. This is a natural, but rare mutation."

Before now, two men have been cured of HIV using a bone marrow or stem cell transplant. Bryson said there could be as many as 50 people a year who benefit from the procedure, though this line of treatment is unlikely to benefit the majority of HIV patients.

“I don’t want people to think that now this is something that can be applied to the 36 million people who are living with HIV,” said Dr. Anthony Fauci, the nation’s premier expert on infectious diseases and President Biden’s Chief Medical Advisor, in an interview with Community Health Center, Inc. “This person had an underlying disease that required a stem cell transplant. … It is not practical to think that this is something that’s going to be widely available. It’s more of a proof of concept.”

Locally, David Ponsart, M-HIPP program manager for Matrix Health Services, said those living with HIV should be encouraged but not overly enthused.

“While a functional cure in this case is exciting, and no doubt life-changing for this patient, it is imperative that we don’t let our guard down in anticipation of a widespread cure coming soon,” Ponsart said. “Prevention and rapid treatment initiation after diagnosis remains the best recommendation for long and healthy life.”