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Bone Marrow Transplant Clears HIV in Two Men

Update Date: Jul 03, 2013 11:21 AM EDT

In another step toward finding a cure or at least, a better treatment option for HIV (human immunodeficiency virus), a team of medical professionals has reported that a bone marrow transplant could potentially clear the virus from infected patients. The team from Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston, MA announced that two HIV infected men had no signs of the virus after receiving bone marrow transplants. Despite the patients' positive outcomes, the team stressed that the results are preliminary and that the virus could return at any point.

According to the team, the two men, who remain anonymous have been infected with HIV for around three decades. During the 30 years of living with the infection, they had developed lymphoma, a type of cancer that requires a bone marrow transplant. The researchers found that post-surgery, there were no detectable traces of HIV in either man's blood. So far, each patient has been living without any detectable signs of the virus. One of the patients was HIV-free for two years, while the other one has been HIV-free for four. However, both men continued to take HIV drugs until recently. Earlier this year, they stopped taking antiretroviral therapy that is most commonly used to treat HIV. So far, both patients have gone at least seven weeks without the HIV drugs and the virus still has not been detected in their blood.

"We have not demonstrated cure, we're going to need longer follow-up," Dr. Timothy Henrich said to BBC News. "What we can say is if the virus does stay away for a year or even two years after we stopped for treatment, that the chances of the virus rebounding are going to be extremely low. It's much too early at this point to use the C-word [cure]."

The bone marrow is responsible for producing new blood cells. It is possible that after a transplant, the new bone marrow transplant had attacked the old one that was containing the virus. Despite this possibility, the doctors logically reasoned that the virus could still be present in the brain tissue or the gastrointestinal tract, and could resurface years later.

"If [the] virus does return, it would suggest that these other sites are an important reservoir of infectious virus and new approaches to measuring the reservoir at relevant sites will be needed to guide the development of HIV curative strategies," he added.

The first ever HIV "cure" was documented in a Berlin patient named Timothy Brown. Brown had received a bone marrow transplant from a donor who was resistant to the virus.  Despite the few successes that have resulted due to bone marrow transplants, doctors remind people that this procedure is not an easy one and could be even more dangerous.

"A bone marrow transplant is a complex and expensive procedure, which comes with significant risks," Dr. Michael Brady, the medical director of the Terrence Higgins Trust explained. "For most people with HIV, it would be more dangerous to undergo a transplant than to continue managing the virus with daily medication."

The results were presented at the International AIDS Society Conference.

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