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Ground-breaking research in Spain may be key to curing HIV
SPANISH scientists have embarked on pioneering clinical trials to find out whether HIV can be cured with stem cells from umbilical cords.
Only 1% of umbilical cords have the right genetic mutation to enable blood extracted from them to wipe out HIV – a mutation known as the CCR5 Delta 32, according to the National Transplant Organisation (ONT) and the Spanish Haematology and Haemotherapy Society.
Blood transfusions will be given to patients with leukaemia and HIV at the same time at first to see whether the treatment works.
An HIV-positive patient who had developed lymphoma was successfully treated last year at the Oncology Institute of Catalunya, and the immune deficiency virus wiped out, which spurred scientists on to investigate further.
Until then, the only trial with conclusive evidence was in Berlin in 2008, when an HIV-positive patient also suffering from acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) was given a bone-marrow transplant from a donor who was not a relative but whose stem cells turned out to contain the CCR5 Delta 32 gene.
This genetic variation appears to be resistant to the HIV virus and blocks its spread, say researchers.
Six years on from the Berlin patient's transplant, during which time he had not taken any antirretroviral drugs – given to positive patients to keep HIV in check – he continues to be virus-free.
Experts believe the only explanation for this is the genetic mutation discovered in the bone marrow he received to treat his leukaemia.
And not only does Spain have the world's highest number of frozen umbilical cords in storage – over 60,000 in 'cord banks', representing 11% of all umbilical blood on the planet – but its quality is said to be better than in any other country.
Umbilical cords in Spain seem to carry a much higher level of cells and are 'real therapeutic gems', according to the ONT's director Rafael Matesanz.
But only around 200 of these are likely to be useful for attempting to cure HIV, says Dr Matesanz.
They need to have a very high cell count, which immediately discards a certain percentage, and of these, only around 1% are estimated to carry the CCR5 Delta 32 gene.
All public umbilical cord banks in Spain – which are based in Barcelona, Madrid, Málaga, Valencia, Santiago de Compostela in the north-western region of Galicia, and in undisclosed locations in the Basque Country and Canary Islands – will take part in the trials, although the initial selection of 'candidate' cords will be carried out in Barcelona, Málaga and Madrid.
Researchers believe that if it works in the patients selected for trials, they may be able to successfully treat up to 80% of HIV sufferers in Spain and its neighbouring countries, as well as patients with onco-haematological conditions – cancer affecting the blood and lymph system, such as variations of leukaemia - who would normally be candidates for stem-cell or bone-marrow transplants.
They even believe the treatment may lead to a cure for AIDS, the disease which the HIV virus can develop into if it is either not kept in check or manages to bypass antirretroviral drugs, and which remains fatal.
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