A 53-year-old man diagnosed with HIV in 2008 is now free of the virus after receiving a stem cell transplant, researchers reported Monday in the journal Nature Medicine.
The German man, known as “the Düsseldorf patient,” is the third confirmed person to be cured of HIV using this treatment, the authors write. Last year, researchers announced that two additional patients had recovered from the virus—including, importantly, a woman of mixed race—but papers on these patients have not been published yet, according to the Agence France-Presse (AFP).
The Düsseldorf patient received the stem cell transplant to treat his leukemia. Crucially, doctors chose to use donated cells with a mutation that made them resistant to HIV. Now, about four years after he stopped taking drugs to manage HIV, the patient shows no signs of an active infection.
Despite this method’s success, it’s not likely to become a widespread cure—due to the high-risk nature of the treatment, it’s unlikely that people with HIV who don’t have leukemia would receive it, according to Nature News’ Sara Reardon. But curing one patient can help scientists learn more about how they might cure others.
“It is obviously a step forward in advancing the science and having us sort of understanding, in some ways, what it takes to cure HIV,” Todd Ellerin, an infectious diseases specialist at South Shore Health who did not contribute to the study, tells ABC News’ Kaviya Sathyakumar.
In 2021, 38.4 million people around the world were living with HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, which attacks the body’s immune system and weakens its defenses against diseases such as tuberculosis, fungal infections and some cancers. There is currently no cure for HIV, according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. But antiretroviral therapies (ART) have made HIV infections less deadly and more manageable. While a person’s life expectancy after an HIV diagnosis was one year in the 1980s, it is now close to normal.
After being diagnosed with leukemia in 2011, the Düsseldorf patient received the stem cell treatment in 2013. Doctors used chemotherapy to kill the blood stem cells in his bone marrow, which would have created cancerous cells, and replaced them with donated stem cells, per New Scientist’s Michael Le Page.
Because these donor cells had the HIV-resistant mutation, the patient stopped taking ART in 2018 and has since been free of HIV, per the Washington Post’s Kelsey Ables.
The first patient to be cured of HIV through a stem cell transplant was Timothy Ray Brown, also known as the Berlin patient. After his bone marrow transplant in 2007 and until his death in 2020, Brown was free of the virus and did not take ART. Then, scientists reported that Adam Castillejo, the London patient, was cured by the same treatment in 2019.
“When you hear about these HIV cures, it’s obviously, you know, incredible, given how challenging it’s been,” Ellerin tells ABC News. “But it still remains the exception to the rule.”
Sharon Lewin, an infectious diseases expert at the University of Melbourne in Australia and president of the International AIDS Society who was not an author of the paper, tells the Post that stem cell transplants are “not a reasonable strategy for 38 million people living with HIV.”
Today, researchers are testing whether they can genetically modify a person’s stem cells to have the HIV-resistant mutation without a transplant from a donor. Lewin tells the Post there have been “some really big advances” in the past five years that might make this sort of treatment “highly feasible.”
“I think we can get a lot of insights from this patient and from these similar cases of HIV cure,” Bjorn-Erik Ole Jensen, a virologist at Düsseldorf University in Germany and first author of the study, tells ABC News. “These insights give us some hints where we could go to make the strategy safer.”