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Scientists may have just discovered a breakthrough treatment for HIV

A mixed-race woman appears to be the third person ever to be cured of the virus with a new approach that holds the potential for curing more people of racially diverse backgrounds.

Globally, 37.7 million people were living with HIV at the end of 2020 (according to WHO).

In Africa, it affects nearly 1 in 25 adults, with the region alone accounting for more than two-thirds of that staggering worldwide statistic.

Since the immunodeficiency virus initially emerged in the population, science has played a crucial role in tackling the epidemic.

And while hundreds of thousands still die from HIV-related causes every year, available remedies such as antiretroviral therapy – which also reduces the risk of transmission – continue to help more and more of those testing positive live longer, healthier lives.

But for decades, there hasn’t existed a cure.

Until today, that is, because scientists may have just discovered a breakthrough treatment which holds the potential for curing more people of racially diverse backgrounds (aka those most impacted) than was previously believed to be possible.

Using a novel stem cell transplant method which they hope could be administered to dozens annually, a group of American researchers in Colorado were able to cure the third person on Earth of HIV.

It marks the first time a female (in which HIV develops and progresses differently) and a person of colour has ever had the disease eradicated from their system.

Leaving the hospital just 17 days after her transfusion, she suffered minimal side effects compared to her male predecessors, was off HIV medication 37 months post-op, and over a year afterwards has yet to experience any resurgence.

The woman, who is of mixed-race, received umbilical cord blood which is particularly revolutionary because it’s more readily available than the stem cells often used in bone marrow transplants.

It also doesn’t need to be as closely matched to the patient; another advantage given that most donors are Caucasian.

‘We estimate that there are approximately 50 patients per year in the US who could benefit from this procedure,’ says Dr Koen van Besien, who was involved in the discovery.

From left, Dr. Koen van Besien, Dr. Jingmei Hsu and Dr. Marshall Glesby.

‘The ability to use partially matched umbilical cord blood grafts greatly increases the likelihood of finding suitable donors for such patients.’

Unfortunately, as promising as this is, the donation was only able to cure the woman of HIV because the donor had a rare genetic mutation that blocks HIV’s method of invading cells.

Such an operation requires a large slice of luck to find a suitable donor with the required HIV-fighting genetic mutation, and stem cells are hard to source, so the patient unlikely presents a viable long-term blueprint for HIV eradication.

It does provide encouragement, however, and proof that the virus is beatable.

‘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,’ Dr Steven Deeks, an AIDS expert at the University of California, told the New York Times.

‘These are stories of providing inspiration to the field and perhaps the road map.’