Another person cured of HIV with risky bone marrow transfer

HIV cell under a microscope
This April 12, 2011 electron microscope image made available by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases shows an H9 T cell, colored in blue, infected with the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), yellow. Photo: AP

There is “strong evidence” that the man known as the “Düsseldorf patient” has been cured of HIV, according to new research published this week.

The 53-year-old patient at Düsseldorf University Hospital in Germany, who had been diagnosed with HIV, received a bone marrow transplant intended to treat leukemia in 2013. The procedure replaced his bone marrow cells with those of a donor with a mutated gene for the CCR5 protein, which is found in white blood cells. HIV uses the protein to enter the cell, but it cannot attach to the mutated version.

In 2019, it was reported that the patient showed no signs of the virus after three months without HIV medication. According to research published on Monday in the journal Nature Medicine, the man has remained HIV-free since then.

The “Düsseldorf patient,” whose name has not been made public, is at least the third person with HIV person to have been declared virus-free after receiving a bone marrow transplant, according to The procedure was first shown to have eliminated the virus in Timothy Ray Brown, also known as the “Berlin patient,” who received it in 2007. He remained HIV-free without antiretroviral therapy (ART) until his death in 2020. Adam Castillejo received the same procedure to treat Hodgkin’s lymphoma in 2016. In 2019, researchers announced that Castillejo, known as the “London patient” at the time, had remained HIV-free 18 months after stopping ART.

In total, HIV has been eliminated in five patients who have received this type of treatment for cancer. Most recently, a 66-year-old man in the U.S. who had been diagnosed with HIV in 1988 was cured after receiving a stem cell transplant to treat blood cancer.

“We monitored him very closely, and to date we cannot find any evidence of HIV replicating in his system,” Dr. Jana Dickter, associate clinical professor at City of Hope Medical Center in Duarte, California, said of the “City of Hope patient” last July.

“It shows it’s not impossible — it’s just very difficult — to remove HIV from the body,” virologist Björn-Erik Jensen said of the procedure this week.

As The Washington Post notes, the bone marrow transplant procedure is risky and unlikely to be used on non-cancer patients. Still, researchers say that cases like these could eventually lead to gene therapy treatments for HIV.

“The most important thing is that what we’ve learned from these studies is that if you make every cell resistant to HIV, the virus has got nowhere to go and eventually melts away,” said Sharon Lewin, director of the Doherty Institute in Melbourne and president of the International AIDS Society.

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