First woman 'cured' of HIV after receiving pioneering cancer treatment

The patient has been functionally cured of HIV after receiving treatment for leukemia.


Words: Will Stroude

A fourth person - and first woman - has been possibly cured of HIV after undergoing a pioneering stem cell transplant procedure, scientists say.

US researchers in Denver, Colorado, announced on Tuesday (15 February) that the woman had not experienced a resurgence of the virus fourteen months after stopping HIV medication, The New York Times reports.

The woman, who was diagnosed with HIV in 2013, was later diagnosed with leukemia - blood cancer - in 2017 and underwent a stem cell transplant the same year using umbilical cord blood from a partially matched donor with a rare natural resistance to HIV.

The patient also received blood from a close relative as she underwent the transplant, and additional adult stem cells following the procedure.

The woman, who is mixed race, has been in remission from her leukemia for more than four years and stopped taking HIV medication towards the end of 2020. Doctor have not detected a resurgence of HIV since.

Because of the high risk of death associated with with stem cell transplants, medical experts say it would be unethical to perform the treatment on anyone with HIV who could otherwise manage the virus through medication. 

However, the 'haplo-cord' procedure is being heralded as a breakthrough as umbilical cord blood is more readily available than the adult stem cells often used in bone marrow transplants, and does not need to be matched as closely to the recipient as bone marrow cells.

“We estimate that there are approximately 50 patients per year in the US who could benefit from this procedure,” Dr Koen van Besien, one of the doctors involved in the treatment, told The New York Times.

“The ability to use partially matched umbilical cord blood grafts greatly increases the likelihood of finding suitable donors for such patients.”

The patient, who was treated in New York, is just the fourth person in the world to be 'functionaly cured' of HIV. Scientists know of two other woman with HIV whose bodies have naturally cured themselves of the virus.