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Stem cell transplants clear HIV from two U.S. patients

Two cancer patients in Boston who were also infected with HIV have no trace of the virus after receiving stem-cell transplants, suggesting they may have been cured of the AIDS-causing infection.

The two, treated at Brigham and Women's Hospital, stopped HIV treatment after the transplants, which in other patients has opened the door for the virus to come roaring back. In one patient there was no sign of the virus 15 weeks after stopping treatment; the other has gone seven weeks without HIV rebounding, according to results presented yesterday at the International AIDS Society's meeting in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia.

The researchers, led by Timothy Henrich of Harvard Medical School and Brigham and Women's Hospital, said it's too early to conclude the two have been cured; the virus may be lingering in their brains or gut. Still, their cases are similar to that of Timothy Brown, who was the first person to be cured of HIV after getting a bone marrow transplant for leukemia in 2007.

"While stem-cell transplantation is not a viable option for people with HIV on a broad scale because of its costs and complexity, these new cases could lead us to new approaches to treating, and ultimately even eradicating, HIV," said Kevin Robert Frost. He is CEO of The Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR), which funded the study.

There was one main difference: the cells Brown received contained a rare genetic mutation called CCR5 that made him resistant to HIV infection. The donors in the new cases lacked that mutation, and the Boston patients didn't undergo the intensive chemotherapy Brown did.

Scientists had believed the CCR5 mutation was key to Brown's being cured. They'll be searching through the new results for clues to whether other genes may hold promise against HIV, Rowena Johnston, amfAR's director of research, said.