Feb 15, 2022 - Science

Woman becomes third person ever cured of HIV, scientists say

Photo of a giant red ribbon hanging at the front of the White House

A large red ribbon is seen on the White House to mark World AIDS Day in Washington, D.C on Dec. 1, 2021. Photo: Mandel Ngan/AFP via Getty Images

Researchers said Tuesday that a woman of mixed race has become the third person ever cured of HIV, the New York Times reports.

Why it matters: Her recovery involved a transplant method using umbilical cord blood, which is more widely available than the adult stem cells needed for bone marrow transplants and doesn't have to match as closely to the recipient. The case could expand the possibility of curing millions more, especially people of color.

  • People of color are much less likely than white people to find a suitable stem cell donor, according to the Harvard Graduate School of Arts and Sciences.
  • Bone marrow transplants are also highly invasive and typically expensive, and as such are usually reserved for last resort.

Details: The unidentified woman, who is past middle age and also had leukemia, was treated with cord blood from a partially matched donor for her cancer. A close relative also gave her blood to boost her temporary immune defenses as the transplant took root

  • Scientists believe her close relative's blood allowed her to avoid severe side effects that dogged the first two people cured of HIV. The two men had bone marrow transplants but suffered side effects including graft versus host disease, in which the donor’s cells attack the recipient’s body, per the Times.

What they're saying: "The fact that she’s mixed race, and that she’s a woman, that is really important scientifically and really important in terms of the community impact," University of California, San Francisco AIDS expert Steven Deeks, who was not part of the research, told the Times.

  • HIV is believed to progress differently in women compared to men, but women comprise only 11% of cure trial participants despite making up a little more than half of the world's HIV cases, the Times reports.
  • "These are stories of providing inspiration to the field and perhaps the road map," Deeks added.

The big picture: In 2020, around 37.7 million people were living with HIV, according to UNAIDS.

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