For more than 30 frustrating years, doctors have struggled to find a cure for HIV. Now, with the help of stem cell research, they’re closer than ever before.
“This approach has the potential to provide lifelong immunity to HIV,” Dr. Scott Kitchen, an associate professor of hematology and oncology at UCLA’s David Geffen School of Medicine, told The Daily Beast. A UCLA AIDS Institute faculty member, Kitchen’s research centers on immune system abnormalities, focusing on the Human Immunodeficiency Virus, or HIV. In more than a dozen published studies, Kitchen has researched why immune cells do not destroy AIDS, and clarified why early AIDS/HIV drugs failed. He recently received a $1.7 million grant from California’s Stem Cell Agency to continue his research to HIV.
“The cells effective in combating the virus were entirely stem-cell generated. What is significant is the cells were able to respond,” he said of his recent work. Because stem cells are capable of regenerating and growing new cells repeatedly, Kitchen’s findings show how stem cell-treated immune cells could destroy HIV and continue to destroy any recurring HIV infection—something that has not been seen before.
AIDS/HIV became the world’s leading infectious killer because the human immune system’s T-cells—which can usually slash all kinds of viruses and bacteria—were never strong enough to vanquish HIV. Kitchen is testing stem-cell-generated T-cells that can overpower the HIV virus like never before.
When the battle against AIDS/HIV began three decades ago, stem cell research was in its infancy. Scientists knew little about how to harness its potential, or even whether it might be useful in treating HIV. The first cases of AIDS, or Acquired Immunodeficiency Syndrome, were reported in 1981. A 1982 New England Journal of Medicine article highlighted doctors’ concerns about a mysterious, unknown immune deficiency that had taken the lives of several young gay men. Since then, the World Health Organization estimates about 35 million people have died of HIV infection.
AIDS/HIV is not the death sentence it once was, thanks to daily medications. Antiretroviral drugs, called ARTs or ARVs, are taken by many HIV patients. ARVs slow but cannot halt the progression of infection. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, ARVs are the reason the annual number of HIV-related deaths has decreased in the U.S. since the 1990s.
Yet, according to National Institutes of Health data, about 95 percent of those living with HIV are in developing countries, where it is still fatal, and where it has orphaned millions of children.