Woman Cured of HIV Using New Method Shows Potential for Others: Scientists

A stem cell transplant has appeared to cure the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) in a woman for the first time.

This is the third known case of HIV remission from a stem cell transplant, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) said in a news release. It's a massive breakthrough in treatment for a virus that for decades was completely incurable.

The woman, who has not yet been named, joins two men who have been cured or likely been cured of the virus, NBC News reported. However, there is still a ways to go before the treatment can be widely used. It's a risky procedure involving the destruction of the immune system, so scientists have only tried it on those suffering from potentially deadly cancers. The patient had received the stem cell transplant to treat her acute myeloid leukemia, according to the NIAID.

The new treatment uses stem cells from umbilical cord blood, which are more widely available than adult stem cells, The New York Times reported. There has been no detected HIV in the woman for 14 months, the NIAID release said, even after stopping antiretroviral therapy, an HIV treatment.

HIV, AIDS, ribbon
A woman has likely been cured of HIV for the first time. Above, a woman is seen holding an HIV/AIDS awareness ribbon. Stock Image/Getty Images

The treatment works by essentially destroying one's immune system and replacing it with a new one, which treats the person's cancer while curing their HIV.

"By killing off the cancerous immune cells via chemotherapy and then transplanting stem cells with the CCR5 genetic mutation, scientists theorize that people with HIV then develop an HIV-resistant immune system," the NIAID said.

Experts told NBC Newsthat this treatment would be "unethical" if tried on someone without life-threatening cancer or another medical condition that qualifies them for it, as it is "toxic" and "sometimes fatal."

Dr. Deborah Persaud, a pediatric infectious disease specialist and one of the leaders of the study, told the outlet while the stem cell transplant is an exciting development, it is "still not a feasible strategy for all but a handful of the millions of people living with HIV."

The first man cured using the stem cell treatment, known as the "Berlin patient," was in HIV remission for 12 years and deemed cured of it before his death from leukemia in September 2020, according to the NIAID. The second man, dubbed the "London patient," continues to be in remission after 30 months.

HIV attacks the immune system and, if not treated, can lead to AIDS, which makes one susceptible to many severe illnesses, called "opportunistic infections," according to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). While cases of HIV and AIDS have declined since peaks in the 1980s and 1990s, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported as of June 2021, there were 1.2 million people living with HIV in the United States.

Update 02/15/22, 3:20 p.m. ET: This article was updated with more details about the treatment and background information.

Update 02/15/22, 2:50 p.m. ET: This article was updated with more details about the stem cell treatment from information from the NIAID.