As HIV Cases Rise, A Reason For Hope

Posted at: 04/23/2013 10:41 PM
Updated at: 04/23/2013 10:45 PM
By: John Doetkott

(ABC 6 News) -- State health officials say the number of HIV cases went up eight percent in 2012, with 315 new cases of the virus last year compared to 292 new cases in 2011.

The state health commissioner said higher rates of infection occurred in communities with social disadvantages, and officials believe there are around 7,500 people living with HIV in Minnesota.

On Tuesday one young HIV patient underwent a revolutionary procedure at the University of Minnesota that could pave the way for the future.
The 12-year-old boy is only the second person ever to have the procedure that involved a blood transplant of extremely rare cells that are immune to HIV.

Doctors used special cells from an umbilical cord to try and cure not only the boy's HIV, but also his leukemia.

Although officials would not release much information about the boy, they said he is a basketball fanatic who traveled a long distance to get to the University of Minnesota where he’s been inspiring doctors since his arrival.

“He’s energetic and excited about participating in this new study,” said Dr. John Wagner, director of the University of Minnesota’s pediatric blood and marrow transplant program.

“We're giving this child a real shot, a real chance,” said Dr. Michael Verneris, a pediatric bone marrow transplant specialist at the university.

The goal is to save his life by curing both his leukemia and HIV.

“You want to show that the proof of concept works,” Dr. Wagner said.

The concept traces back to 2007 and a man named Timothy Ray Brown, the only other person to have undergone this treatment.

Brown is now cured of HIV.

“We have Timothy Brown number one,” Dr. Wagner said. “And we hope that this is patient number two.”

For a week leading up to the procedure, the 12-year-old patient has been through chemo and radiation treatments.

But amazingly it only takes about half an hour to transplant blood from an umbilical cord with cells so special that less than one percent of us have them.

“They don't have the right landing gear, if you will, for HIV to get into the cell,” said Dr. Tim Schacker, director of the university’s HIV clinic. “So they theoretically can't be infected with HIV.”

Cord blood is easier to match than the adult marrow that was used in Timothy Brown’s procedure, giving the medical team hope that though it's momentous, the procedure will ultimately prove to be merely a stepping stone.

“It's really wonderful to think that perhaps we are part of history,” Dr. Verneris said. “And we're watching and making this happen.”

“We don't accept what it is today as that's how it's always going to be,” Dr. Wagner said. “We want to change the practice of medicine and we think this is a major step forward for patients with HIV.”