I’ve seen this article spring up on Facebook with some frequency this past week. A cure for AIDS? I was born in the 70’s, so my early childhood was wrought with tales of the horrors of the disease and many schools were implementing many AIDS awareness programs. AIDS was discovered 30 years ago yesterday, June 5. And it seems we may have stumbled upon a possible cure.
Timothy Brown had both Leukemia and HIV and he received a stem-cell transplant from a bone marrow donor. The donor was immune to HIV. Prior to the transplant, Brown had been on a retrovirus drug regime for the HIV. After the transplant, Brown was no longer on the HIV medications, yet there was no more “replicating virus” – his HIV had gone away. The doctor who performed the risky transplant operation had a plan:
[Dr.] Hütter had an idea. He knew little about HIV, but he remembered that people with a certain natural genetic mutation are very resistant to the virus. The mutation, called delta 32, disables CCR5, a receptor on the surface of immune-system cells that, in the vast majority of cases, is HIV’s path inside. People with copies from both parents are almost completely protected from getting HIV, and they are relatively common in northern Europe—among Germans, the rate is about one in a hundred. Hütter resolved to see if he could use a stem-cell donor with the delta-32 mutation to cure not just Brown’s leukemia but also his HIV.
Hütter found 232 donors worldwide who were matches for Brown. If probabilities held, two would have double delta 32. Hütter persuaded the people at the registry to test the donors for the mutation; his laboratory paid, at a cost of about $40 per sample. They worked through the list. Donor 61 was a hit.
His colleagues and the chief of his unit were dubious. “The main problem was that I was just a normal physician—I had no leading position. It was not always easy to get what we needed,” Hütter recalls. Brown himself was not pushing the idea. “At that point, I wasn’t that concerned about HIV, because I could keep taking medication,” he says.
Before Hütter asked the donor registry to begin testing, he’d searched the literature and contacted AIDS experts. It dawned on him that no one had ever done this before. “My first thought was, I’m wrong. There must be something I was missing.” In a sense, that was true. Gero Hütter did not know what most AIDS researchers and clinicians had taken as accepted wisdom: A cure was impossible.”
How exciting this proposition is for HIV patients, as well as what this could mean for other diseases. Perhaps we could even find a way to tie in abandoned frozen embryos into the solution.
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