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Leukaemia case raises hopes of possible AIDS cure

Thanks to Laurie Fraser for the link.

Reposted from:
http://www.abc.net.au/news/stories/2008/11/14/2420169.htm

Medical professionals in Germany may have stumbled across a possible cure for AIDS after treating a man for cancer.

Doctors in the German capital Berlin were surprised to discover that a bone marrow transplant they used for the patient with leukaemia also cured him of the HIV virus.

But other scientists have warned that the cure only worked because the donor was both compatible and carrying an extremely rare double HIV resistant mutation in his genes.

Two million people die of AIDS every year and the virus has infected 33 million people worldwide.

So far all efforts to find a cure have been unsuccessful but the German discovery has raised hopes in some quarters.

Two years ago a 42-year-old American man living in Berlin was facing the prospect of dying. He had both leukaemia and AIDS.

To treat the leukaemia he had to stop taking AIDS-inhibiting treatment to undergo a bone marrow transplant.

His cancer-stricken cells were replaced by healthy stem cells from a donor who had a natural genetic resistance to the HIV virus.

Doctors specifically sought out a donor with this rare genetic mutation, called CCR5, which stops the HIV virus from attaching to infected cells.

Doctors were astounded to discover that after 20 months not only was the patient free of leukaemia, but there was no trace of the HIV virus.

Dr Gero Hutter from the Charite Hospital in Berlin stresses that the dangerous transplant operation cannot become a standard treatment for HIV.

"The procedure comes with such a high mortality rate that it would be ethically unjustifiable except for this specific situation when a patient was forced to have a transplant because of another disease," he said.

But this discovery has raised new hope that gene therapy might some day cure the disease.

"It's certainly not a cure but it certainly suggests to us that if we can go down the route of looking more closely at gene-therapy that might block that CCR5 receptor," said Dr Catherine Hankins, chief scientific adviser at the UN AIDS agency in Geneva.

"Even if we can find out exactly how this patient fought HIV, we might learn more about natural protective immunity.

British immunologist Professor Philip Goulder is from Oxford University and he says he is cautiously optimistic.

"It is way into the future and it is not something that is available now but gene therapy offers a potential avenue to dealing with the HIV epidemic," he said.

"I think there haven't been that many good news stories in terms of HIV vaccine development of late so this is certainly an avenue that should be pursued."

AIDS researchers will now examine the German case to assess whether others can benefit from this surprising discovery.

Based on an AM report by Stephanie Kennedy.

TAGGED: BIOLOGY, MEDICINE


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