Second patient free of HIV after risky stem cell transplant
SEATTLE - Seattle is the backdrop for a major announcement about a potential cure for HIV. Researchers and scientists attending a conference in the city announced that they have a second patient who appears to be free of HIV following a risky stem cell transplant.
That second patient is called "the London patient." The breakthrough comes 12 years after "the Berlin patient," the first man to be cured from HIV.
Timothy Brown, the Berlin patient, is a Seattle native who received a similar stem cell transplant.
For people living with HIV the latest news means hope.
“Tough one in the beginning, it`s just a death sentence,” Rod Fichter said.
For the past 3 decades, Fichter has worked at Ameriflight, it's about the same amount of time he has lived with HIV.
After living in constant fear of dying for years, Fichter found out he had a mutation that was stopping the HIV from progressing. But that's not the case for the vast majority of people with HIV.
“Lost a partner of 30 years and a lot of friends,” Fichter said.
Fichter’s partner, Gary Johnson, lost his life to AIDS 7 years ago.
But could the London patient finally be the launching pad to a global cure?
“The London patient is a 40-year-old man who received stem cell transplant of HIV resistant cells, they have been unable to detect HIV in this patient. We are very excited about it,” Dr. Marcella Flores said.
Dr. Flores works for amfAR, the organization that funded the research and experiment behind the London patient. Flores says it's been difficult to replicate the Berlin patient in part because it's been hard to find the right cells to match HIV patients.
“It's very difficult to find the exact flavor that matches the recipient,” Flores said.
Scientist have been unable to replicate the Berlin patient until now.
Flores says the virus hasn't been detected in the London patient for the past 18 months, but she says we still need a lot of time to see what happens with him before calling it a cure.
She's also hoping the information they’ve gathered on the latest case will lead to the next level of research, gene therapy.
“The idea behind gene therapy is to recreate this natural mutation which only exists in 1 percent of the population,” Dr. Flores said.
Dr. Flores says stem cell transplants for HIV patients are dangerous and expensive; the goal through gene therapy is to create something similar to a vaccine.
She says more successful stem cell transplants will give scientists more information to move to gene therapy.
“This is important because the more patients we have to compare the more we can compare and contrast,” Dr. Flores said.
Dr. Flores says she is hopeful that there will be a cure in her lifetime. She has a personal story to why she is so invested in finding a cure. Her uncle died of AIDS back in the '80s and she remembers wondering how an amazing man was reduced to a skeleton so quickly.
Since then, she has dedicated her life to find a cure. The London patient gives her hope and it does for Fichter as well.
“It's a door opening up, and I am happy for all those millions of people out there, there is some hope now,” Fichter said.
In order to find a cure, it is pivotal that scientists find as many people who are resistant to HIV. They are those who carry natural mutations that make their cells resistant to contracting most strains of HIV.
It is extremely rare to find these people but they are out there. So far, amfAR says they have tested 2 million people and found that about 22,000 of them carry the HIV resistant cells.