A mixed-race woman has been cured of HIV thanks to a transplant method involving umbilical cord blood, breaking new ground in the medical field for racially diverse patients, scientists announced on Tuesday.
Only the third person to ever be cured of the immunodeficiency virus, the woman’s identity is being withheld for privacy reasons. However, it is known that she is mixed race, and past middle age. Her race, sex and age has led experts in the medical field to express confidence about the possibility of curing more people of diverse backgrounds.
“The fact that she’s mixed race, and that she’s a woman, that is really important scientifically and really important in terms of the community impact,” Steven Deeks, an AIDS expert at the University of California, San Francisco, who was not involved in the work, told the New York Times.
The achievement is notable because while the typical practice for marrow transplant involves finding a donor of similar race to the patient’s, the cord blood this woman received came from a partially matched donor. Most registered donors are white, according to the New York Times, and this development opens up the possibility of curing many more people with HIV and cancer than previously imagined. The other good news is that cord blood is more widely available than the stem cells used in the bone marrow transplants, which is what was used to cure the other two patients of HIV.
Timothy Ray Brown was the first person to be cured of HIV after he received a marrow transplant from a donor who carried a mutation that blocked the infection. He remained HIV-free up to his death from leukemia 12 years later, in 2020. The same mutation—which has reportedly only been found in about 20,000 donors—was later used to cure another HIV patient, Adam Castillejo, in 2019.
According to the same New York Times report, both men “suffered punishing side effects” including graft versus host disease (GvHD), in which donated stem cells view the recipient’s body as foreign and attack. Additionally, Brown nearly died after his transplant and Castillejo experienced multiple infections, hearing loss and lost nearly 70 pounds.
According to a physician at Weill Cornell Medicine in New York City, the latest patient to be cured left hospital 17 days after her transplant. Along with cord blood, she also received blood from a relative, which scientists theorize may have helped her body avoid transplant rejection. The new method may have spared her some of the most brutal side effects experienced by Brown and Castillejo.
“Umbilical stem cells are attractive,” Deeks told the New York Times. “ There’s something magical about these cells and something magical perhaps about the cord blood in general that provides an extra benefit.”
However, there remain many caveats to this new treatment. Bone marrow transplants are known to be high-risk and are generally only offered as a last resort to people with cancer who have no other treatment options. It’s worth noting that the latest person to be cured of HIV had leukemia, and originally received cord blood to treat her cancer, not HIV.
Records show that she was diagnosed with HIV in June 2013, and was later diagnosed with leukemia in March 2017. About three years after the transplant she opted to discontinue antiretroviral therapy, and more than 14 months later her blood tests show no signs of HIV or antibodies.
HIV-related research and outreach do not always reflect demographic trends in new cases. As the New York Times reported in 2019, while women account for more than half of HIV cases worldwide, they make up only 11 percent of participants in clinical trials. This week, the UK Health Security Agency announced that HIV infections of heterosexual people surpassed those of gay or bisexual men.
In any case, this new cure appears to have positive social and scientific implications, and is another step toward eradicating the disease.