Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center investigators are doing more than trying to prevent HIV. They're trying to cure it. In 2011, a team led by Drs. Keith Jerome and Hans-Peter Kiem received a $20 million grant to investigate whether stem cell transplants can accomplish this lifesaving goal.
Their research builds on the remarkable success of Timothy Ray Brown — also known as the "Berlin patient" — who is the first person ever cured of HIV. Brown was diagnosed with the virus in 1995 and used antiretroviral therapy to control it. Then, in 2007 and again in 2008, he received bone marrow transplants to combat acute myeloid leukemia.
The cells came from a donor who carried a rare gene mutation that made the donor naturally immune to HIV. These transplants eradicated Brown's cancer and transferred the genetic variation to his immune system. Six years later, he has no trace of either disease.
"It wasn't until the Berlin patient that we knew an HIV cure was possible," Kiem said.
The Fred Hutch-led team, called defeatHIV, uses this breakthrough as a possible blueprint for cures that could reach patients worldwide.
The treatment used on Brown can't be applied to people with HIV on a large scale because bone marrow transplants can be risky and are mainly a last resort in cancer patients. Also, very few people are naturally immune to HIV, making donor cells hard to come by. The research team must instead find ways to modify a patient's own immune cells.
The goal is to take stem cells from a patient with HIV, insert genetic instructions into those cells that let them resist the virus, and then put the cells back into the patient.
DefeatHIV's team of world-leading investigators includes scientists from Fred Hutch, the University of Washington, Seattle Children's Research Institute, City of Hope, Sangamo BioSciences and the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease.