Exciting prospects: SCT in HIV therapy

I am tremendously psyched about this fascinating report published in Blood about a week back. The paper from this German multi-institutional group describes how, in an HIV-infected leukemic patient, transplantation with CCR5Δ32/Δ32 stem cells appeared to cure HIV. Even as I write this, I can barely contain my excitement; this finding has tremendous possibilities.

For the uninitiated, cellular chemokine receptors (CCR), as well as C-X-C Chemokine receptors (CXCR), are cell-surface protein molecules that ordinarily bind to chemokines (small protein molecules that act as chemo-attractants to guide the migration of cells for various purposes), activating signalling processes downstream into the cell. HIV, the human immunodeficiency virus, co-opts such receptors, most commonly CCR5 or CXCR4, to mediate its entry into its primary target, the CD4 T-lymphocytes. Viral replication in these cells utilizes the cellular gene expression processes, which are, understandably, most active in activated cells; therefore, HIV infection targets activated CD4 T-cells, especially the activated memory CD4+ T-cells in gastrointestinal mucosa, leading to their loss in the peripheral blood and lymphoid tissues, gradually destroying the immune system.

The aim of the currently available anti-retroviral therapies (ART, including ‘Highly Active ART’ or HAART) is to control the HIV replication, thereby allowing the immune system to be restored – which delays the disease progression. However, clever, little HIV establishes reservoirs of latently infected CD4+ T-cells and tissue phagocytes (such as macrophages and glial cells), as well as anatomical niches, such as the prostate gland, that continues to harbor the replication-competent virus despite ART – which allows for re-infection (technically, re-activation) once the ART is discontinued.

However, a multicenter cohort study, published in Science in 1996, made an important observation: Individuals whose cells contained two copies (homozygous) of a deletion variant (Δ32) of the CCR5 gene (CCR5Δ32/Δ32) – which abrogated cell surface expression of CCR5 – were naturally resistant to infection by CCR5-recognizing HIV strains. Moreover, progression to full blown AIDS was delayed in HIV-infected individuals by more than 16 years (the so-called ‘Long Term Progressors’) if they were homozygous for the Δ32 mutation, and by 2-4 years if they were heterozygous (i.e. had one copy of the mutated gene).

The German group conducting the current study had previously documented the absence of rebound viremia (“virus in blood”) in the first 20 months after cessation of ART in their HIV-infected patient who received CCR5Δ32/Δ32 stem cells as treatment for relapsed acute myeloid leukemia (AML). This report raised the possibility of using transplantation of selected or transgenic hematopoietic stem cells as a treatment for HIV/AIDS.

However, in an already HIV-infected patient, ordinarily the pre-transplant conditioning (immune suppression, i.e. destruction of the transplant recipient’s immune system in order to prevent rejection, as well as cytoreduction, i.e. the depletion of host cells – by means of intense chemotherapy and/or radiation) process doesn’t lead to the complete elimination of HIV from the tissue reservoirs despite HAART, and such patients have been known to experience rebound viremia from the pre-transplant HIV population.

Therefore, in the current study, the German group looked for several parameters in their patient, namely:

(a) Immune reconstituion, i.e. the restoration of CD4+ T-cells in the patient. They evaluated the reconstitution in the systemic circulation, as well as in the mucosal immune system, for >3.5 years after the transplant.

(b) Continued HIV-susceptibility of the recovered immune cells. They analyzed the activation status and CXCR4 expression profile of the recovered CD4+ T-cells, as well as their susceptibility to a productive HIV infection.

© Stability and persistence of the latent HIV-reservoir during the period of immune reconstitution following the CCR5-mutated stem cell transfer. They examined different tissue compartments for donor (CCR5-negative) and host (CCR5-positive) immune cells by immunofluorescence microscopy as well as CCR5-genotyping.

This brings us to the most amazing part of their findings. They observed that:

1. Host T-cells, including the long-lived HIV target cells of host-origin, were completely eliminated from the periphery following the transplant, being replaced by donor derived cells. This is an exceedingly important observation, since non-circulating immune cells (tissue T-cells and monocyte/macrophages) are virtually resistant to chemo/radio-therapy, and their elimination ensures removal of possible viral reservoirs. They found no CCR5 expressing host-origin cells in the liver, colon and brain within two years.

2. Numbers of donor-derived peripheral CD4 T cells increased continuously reaching healthy levels in two years, along with an enrichment of memory, as well as naïve, central, CD4 T cells. Results from their control groups established that the T-cell recovery was primarily through the homeostatic proliferation of memory CD4+ T cells.

3. Circulating donor-derived CCR5-negative CD4+ T cells were efficiently recruited to the gastrointestinal tract, repopulating the mucosal T-cell compartment.

4. Over 45 months following transplantation, HIV RNA and DNA remained undetectable in tissue compartments, and HIV-specific antibodies in the serum gradually decreased over time.

5. Importantly, however, the recovered, donor-derived CCR5-negative CD4+ T cells maintained the level of CXCR4 expression, thereby remaining vulnerable to HIV-variants that target this molecule (called ‘X4 HIV’), which they also demonstrated experimentally.

Therefore, the CCR5Δ32/Δ32 stem cell transplantation in this HIV-infected AML patient was instrumental in successful recovery of CD4+ T cells and complete elimination of HIV, as well as HIV reservoirs, from the patient. This was likely possible because of their three-pronged approach: (a) The HAART was active against the virus, (b) the pre-transplant conditioning effectively reduced the peripheral HIV-infected cells, and © the stem-cell transplant effectively flushed out the remaining HIV-reservoirs, while remaining impervious to fresh infection.

As with any scientific study, this report, too, comes with caveats that temper the enthusiasm.A The most critical of such caveats is that these were observations in just a single patient. Secondly, the CCR5-negative CD4 T cells, and thereby the patient, still remained susceptible to X4 HIV. This patient was possibly extremely fortunate to have been infected with the CCR5-tropic variant (‘R5’) of HIV, and not X4, and also not with a variant that mutated rapidly to lose its CCR5-tropicity. In addition, although by common prognostic markers (i.e. plasma viral load and peripheral CD4 T cell count) shows absence of HIV-disease in this patient, presence of still-latent HIV in distinct tissue compartments, especially the hard-to-reach mucosal immune system, cannot still be completely discounted. Also important to remember is the fact that the bone-marrow transplant (hematopoietic stem cell transplant) process is inherently risk-laden, and still associated with significant mortality and morbidity.

But all in all, the fact that the stem-cell transplantation intended to treat AML has managed to keep this patient HIV-free for 3.5 years in absence of continued ART represents a powerful and exciting achievement in the continuous war against the scourge of HIV, opening up distinct possibilities for future HIV-therapy. One such possibility might be the voluntary, pro-active banking of autologous (from the same individual) stem cells, perhaps even with an engineered CCR5 mutation, that can be used later, in the event of an HIV-infection, or certain cancers. It appears that such banking services are already in operation, albeit currently of doubtful utility.

More reading:

1. Allers K, et al. Evidence for the cure of HIV infection by CCR5Δ32/Δ32 stem cell transplantation. Blood. 2010 Dec 8. [Epub ahead of print] PMID: 21148083 This is paper under discussion.

2. Chun TW, Fauci AS. Latent reservoirs of HIV: obstacles to the eradication of virus. Proc Natl Acad Sci U S A. 1999 Sep 28;96(20):10958-61. PMID: 10500107.

3. Smith DM, et al. The prostate as a reservoir for HIV-1. AIDS. 2004 Jul 23;18(11):1600-2. PMID: 15238781.

4. Dean M, et al. Genetic restriction of HIV-1 infection and progression to AIDS by a deletion allele of the CKR5 structural gene. Hemophilia Growth and Development Study, Multicenter AIDS Cohort Study, Multicenter Hemophilia Cohort Study, San Francisco City Cohort, ALIVE Study. Science. 1996 Sep 27;273(5283):1856-62. PMID: 8791590.

5. Hutter G, et al. Long-term control of HIV by CCR5 Δ32/Δ32 stem-cell transplantation. N Engl J Med. 2009;360(7):692-698. PMID: 19213682.

Note: A. A fact most purveyors of pseudoscience like to capitalize on, without understanding the dynamic, empiricism-driven, evidence-based nature of science.


  1. Cath Ennis

    It is indeed a very cool story – and obviously fantastic for the individual patient.

    However, it unfortunately reminded me a little too strongly of the South Park episode in which Magic Johnson discovers a cure for AIDS – injecting ground-up money (~$180,000) into the bloodstream – and people go running off to Africa to tell people that they have a cure, and "all" they have to do is grind up and inject $180,000.

    How many patients will be lucky enough to find a matched donor with the right, "resistant" genotype?

    How many people will die from the treatment? A full bone marrow transplant is extremely dangerous.

    How many people/countries will be able to afford the treatment, even if they clear the first two hurdles?


    Don’t get me wrong, I appreciate the impact of this study, and the transplant field is still making advances with respect to safety and cost. But I don’t think it’s time to stop all the other lines of HIV prevention and treatment research just yet…

  2. Kausik Datta

    Oh, you have outlined the very concerns that crossed my mind, Cath – including one that I mentioned, the inherent risk of HSCT. I agree with you absolutely. Finding the right match is also vitally important, and as I mentioned, even that might not be enough to stave off a future HIV infection with a different (or mutated) strain.

    However, what got me excited is the very idea that there may yet be a way for a reasonable ‘cure’ for HIV disease, which is not to say that the idea per se is already feasible. I am really glad for the patient, who seems to have gotten rid of both AML and HIV.

  3. Laura Wheeler

    This really is fascinating research and great news for the discussed individual! A true milestone in HIV research.  To reiterate what Kausik has just commented, it is true the difficulty of this process will be in locating the right match and even that may not lead to an individual being fully cured.  Furthermore the risk of death with a full bone marrow transplantation is just another one of the numerous factors to take into consideration.

    Cath the story in South Park, albeit it ridiculous / or ridiculously funny, does raise an interesting point.  The impact of the study will be significant but the costs will be high. However this is exciting news and we are moving in the right direction. 

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