A 37-year-old man from Barcelona, who had been infected with the HIV virus in 2009, was cured of the condition after receiving a transplant of blood from such an umbilical cord.
Unfortunately, the man died of cancer having developed lymphoma in 2012, but the Spanish medical team involved is still hugely encouraged by what it considers to be a breakthrough in the fight against HIV and related conditions, Spanish daily El Mundo reported on Thursday.
Doctors in Barcelona initially attempted the technique using the precedent of Timothy Brown, an HIV patient who developed leukaemia before receiving experimental treatment in Berlin.
Brown was given bone marrow from a donor who were carried the resistance mutation from HIV.
The CCR5 Delta 35 mutation affects a protein in white blood cells, and provides an estimated one percent of the human population with high resistance to infection from HIV. After the cancer treatment, the HIV virus had also disappeared.
In the case of the so-called 'Barcelona patient', doctors had already tried to treat his lymphoma with chemotherapy as well as an auto-transplant of stem cells. They looked for a suitable bone marrow donor but could not find one, so they turned to another answer.
"We suggested a transplant of blood from an umbilical cord but from someone who had the mutation because we knew from 'the Berlin patient' that as well as causing the cancer, we could also eradicate HIV," explained Rafael Duarte, the director of the Haematopoietic Transplant Programme at the Catalan Oncology Institute in Barcelona.
Before a transplant of this nature, a patient’s blood cells are destroyed with chemotherapy before they are replaced with new cells, incorporating the mutation which means the HIV virus can no longer attach itself to them.
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In this case, the medical team used stem cells from another donor to accelerate the regeneration process.
Just 11 days after the transplant, the patient in Barcelona experienced recovery and three months on it was found that he no longer had the HIV virus in his body. Despite the patient’s unfortunate death from cancer, the process has now opened the way to an ambitious project, with the backing of Spain’s National Transplant Organisation. The world’s first clinical trials of umbilical cord blood transplants for HIV patients with blood cancers will start in March 2015.
Javier Martínez, a virologist from the Irsicaixa research foundation, stressed that the programme is designed to help first and foremost HIV patients suffering from cancer, but "this therapy does allow us to speculate about a cure for HIV," he added.