Researchers in the United States are about to give 10 HIV positive patients with cancer a stem cell treatment that contains a rare resistance gene. This treatment may not only save them from cancer, but could also cure their HIV infection.
The trial will use “cord blood” which is obtained from a newborn’s umbilical cord after they have been born. Traditionally, the umbilical cord and the blood it contains would be discarded after a baby was born. However, scientists now know that that cord blood is a very rich source of stem cells, which can be used for various medical treatments. The stem cells found in cord blood are already used to treat more than 80 different illnesses, including some life-threatening forms of cancer.
Stem cell treatments are often used to renew a patient’s ability to produce healthy blood cells after they have received high dose chemotherapy treatments. The chemotherapy treatment is used to kill the cancer cells in the blood-forming stem cells within bone marrow, then cord blood is used to resupply the body with healthy blood-forming stem cells.
When cord blood stem cells are used in conjunction with chemotherapy, they will also “reset” the patient’s immune system. This occurs because the stem cell treatment also affects the white blood cells used by the immune system.
Many HIV-positive patients taking antiviral drugs experience lymphoma, which is usually treated successfully with drugs treatments. However, when a person with HIV also has leukaemia, their only option is a stem cell transplant.
10 HIV-positive patients will leukaemia will receive a cord blood stem cell treatment as a part of this upcoming study. However, this treatment is designed to do more than cure their cancer — it will hopefully cure them of HIV as well.
Researchers will use units of cord blood that carry a natural mutation capable of blocking HIV from infecting immune cells. This has the potential of suppressing HIV without the need for antiviral drugs.
If successful, the researchers may have discovered a viable cure for HIV that could potentially save the lives of millions of people around the globe.