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First Trial To Use Umbilical Cord Stem Cells For HIV Treatment Set To Start In Spain

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Stem cell technology shows promise in the treatment of many diseases and a breakthrough discovery might determine a potable cure for Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) infection. The world's first clinical trial wherein HIV-positive patients will be treated using blood transplants from the umbilical cord within three years is set to be performed in Spain.

The purpose of the study is to recreate the success story of the first man who was cured of the potentially-fatal viral infection. Dubbed as the 'Berlin Patient', Timothy Ray Brown is the only living person in the world who was completely cured from HIV.

Brown, who was HIV-positive, received a shocking diagnosis in 2006. Apparently, he developed leukemia, a type of cancer affecting the blood cells in the body. During his treatment, he underwent stem cell transplant and surprisingly, his HIV virus count dramatically decreased.

Today, he is cancer-free and only traces of the virus can be found in his body which do not replicate making him HIV-free.

In a similar case, a man from Barcelona also received blood transplant from umbilical cords but he died shortly due to lymphoma that they were not able to evaluate if the procedure was successful.

The decision for the clinical trial was announced in the haematology conference in Valencia by Spain's National Organisation of Transplants (ONT) in order to determine if the case of the 'Berlin Patient' can be replicated to other HIV-positive patients who have similar diseases like leukemia, lymphoma, or other cancers.

ONT and national blood banks chose 157 donors who have genetic mutation which makes them resistant to HIV. However, they plan to replicate the procedure done to the 'Barcelona Patient' wherein blood is transplanted from umbilical cords unlike the procedure done to Timothy Brown wherein the bone marrow was used.

"We suggested a transplant of blood from an umbilical cord but from someone who had the mutation because we knew from 'the Berlin patient' that as well as causing the cancer, we could also eradicate HIV," explained Rafael Duarte, the director of the Haematopoietic Transplant Programme at the Catalan Oncology Institute in Barcelona.

This type of genetic mutation known as the CCR5 Delta 35 mutation alters a protein in the white blood cells. A few people around the world (one percent of the human population) has high resistance to infection from HIV.

"This project can put us at the cutting edge of this field within the world of science," said José María Moraleda, president of the Spanish Society of Hematology and Hemotherapy.

"It will allow us to gain more knowledge about HIV and parallely offer us a potential option for curing a poorly diagnosed malignant hematological disease," he added.

The doctors are hoping that the first clinical trial will start between December and January in Madrid, Spain. 

Photo: Griffin Boyce | Flickr 

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