Stem cell therapy has proven to be helpful in many medical situations, to the point where it's regularly used for some conditions. However, it's recently made headlines because a patient being treated for cancer benefited from stem cell therapy in a unique way: it put his HIV into remission. This leads researchers to believe that it could be instrumental in helping to formulate a cure in the future.
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Treatment Intended for Cancer
The patient in question was diagnosed with Hodgkin's Lymphoma in 2012, and stem cell therapy was used as part of his treatment along with chemotherapy. The stem cells used in the treatment came from a person who had a natural immunity to the HIV virus, and the treatment resulted in both the cancer and HIV going into remission. After 18 months, the HIV still has not returned and the patient has been able to stop taking his antiretroviral meds.
Not a One-Off Situation
While it's easy to write it off as a one-time thing, this isn't the first time that stem cells have helped patients with HIV, according to the BBC. A decade ago, a patient named Timothy Brown had similar results. He was HIV positive and being treated for leukemia when he received a bone marrow transplant from a person who was HIV resistant. Afterward, his HIV went into remission and has yet to return.
Another thing that bears looking into is the fact that with both patients, chemotherapy was a component of treatment, which isn't a feasible solution for everyone who has HIV, however. Researchers need to determine if it was simply the stem cells or a combination of the stem cells and chemo that caused the results.
While the news is promising and certainly sparks hope, there's a long way to go before this information turns into something useful for developing a cure. Researchers hope to discover how the resistance to the virus works within the body in order to create a solution that works for the rest of those who have HIV. In the meantime, the antiretrovirals that HIV patients take allow them to live long, healthy lives so researchers are not attempting to mess with what works currently.
The other thing that researchers caution is that a long-term follow-up is necessary with these two patients to see if the HIV does return. Because the virus has a tendency to lay dormant for a while, there are no promises that it won't return in the future.
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