Doctors Say Adult Stem Cell Research Cures HIV-Positive Man

Bioethics   |   Steven Ertelt   |   Dec 14, 2010   |   8:39PM   |   Washington, DC

Doctors in Germany say they have cured an American living there who has the HIV/AIDS virus by using a treatment based on adult stem cells, the more ethical form of stem cell research.

In 2008, German doctors reported they had used a selective adult stem cell transplant to treat a leukemia patient. The treatment had a side effect — that the transplant also removed his HIV infection.

After the transplant, the virus was undetectable in his bloodstream for at least two years and he no longer took antiretroviral drugs.

Now, doctors have reveale the name of the patient — Timothy Ray Brown, an HIV-positive man — and they are claiming the results with this patient provide evidence for a “cure” for HIV infection using the selective adult stem cell transplant.

Publishing their results in the medical journal Blood, they say, “In conclusion, our results strongly suggest that cure of HIV has been achieved in this patient.”

The transplant appeared to wipe out both diseases, but Dr. David Prentice, a former biology professor at Indiana State University who is a fellow at the Family Research Council, told that caution is in order.

“The evidence at the time, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, was compelling,” he told this afternoon. “The adult stem cell transplant, a standard treatment for leukemia, selectively used donor cells that lacked a molecule called CCR5–this cell-surface protein acts as an attachment factor for the HIV virus, so the donor cells were resistant to HIV infection. But the HIV virus can hide in various cells and re-infect a patient’s system.”

“Caution is still the byword though,” Prentice warned. “These types of transplants are not gentle, and the virus could still be hiding and waiting. In addition, such transplants would require finding bone marrow adult stem cell donors with the particular mutation, so that the donated cells lack the CCR5 receptor, so this will not be a widely-applicable treatment.”

“Still, it provides more evidence of the real hope and  possibilities with adult stem cell transplants,” Dr. Prentice said.

Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, who has studied HIV/AIDS for 30 years, also cautioned the public about the results and new speculation about what could come from them — saying any new cure is impractical.

“It’s hard enough to get a good compatible match for a transplant like this,” he told Fox News. “But you also have to find compatible donor that has this genetic defect, and this defect is only found in 1 percent of the Caucasian population and zero percent of the black population. This is very rare.”

Fauci also said that, while Mr. Brown is “functionally cured,” not every HIV-positive individual would respond to the treatment.

“This is not prime time to me at all,” he said. “This is a very unusual situation that has little practical application for a simple reason. This donor not only had to be a good compatible match, but the donor had to have a genetic defect of cells that do not express the receptor that the HIV virus needs to enter the cell.”

He said the treatment is painful, expensive, complicated and requires the patient to begin an entirely new drug regimen.

“This patient is trading one poison for another. He may not have to be on antiretroviral drugs anymore, but he has to take immunosuppressant drugs now to prevent the rejection of his transplant cells. Again, what this is, is an interesting proof of concept, but it’s absolutely impractical,” he concluded.

But Dr. Thomas Quinn, director of Johns Hopkins Center for Global Health, told FOX News he has more hope about the potential for the treatment.

“This was a new report that looked much deeper into whether HIV could still be present or lurking in the body in some way, not cured, and since the transplant he remains viral free and his cells appear to be resistant to infection,” he said.

“He [Brown] has been without therapy for three years and appears to be free of the virus,” he said, adding that this should qualify as the first HIV ‘cure’ of sorts. “It gives hope to the millions of people infected with HIV that cure is a feasible option in the future.”