Boy with HIV, Leukemia Dies after U of M Transplant

Updated: 07/12/2013 4:23 PM By: Maricella Miranda

U doctors involved in the blood transplant.
U doctors involved in the blood transplant.
Photo: Photo: KSTP File Photo

A 12-year-old boy, who underwent an umbilical cord blood transplant this year at the University of Minnesota, has died after developing a severe complication.

The boy, Eric Blue, of Alexandria, La., died July 5 from graft-versus-host disease, which occurs when the immune cells of the donor attack various tissues of the body, the U reported Friday, July 12. Eric, who also had leukemia, initially had a partial response to its treatment.

Doctors at the University of Minnesota Amplatz Children's Hospital infused the cord blood into the boy in April. It was attempted once before with bone marrow in Berlin several years ago. That time, the procedure worked and the man was HIV free.

"At the time we took Eric's case, we knew it was going to be a challenge and that success was never a guarantee," said transplant physician and Masonic Cancer Center researcher Dr. Michael Vernaris, in a statement.

"Still, we were ready to move this novel treatment approach forward based on the experience of our team with cord blood transplantation generally and availability of HIV experts here at the University. While the entire team is very sad for this family, we also must recognize that we gave him the best chance of beating not one but two life-threatening diseases."

The transplant was the first in the United States, designed specifically to cure a child with HIV/AIDS, as well as a form of acute lymphoblastic leukemia that is partially resistant to chemotherapy alone, the U reported.

The transplant cord blood, known to be highly effective in curing leukemia, contained a variant of cell surface protein CCR5. Present in less than a percent of the population, the protein prevents most strains of the HIV virus from entering a patient's T cells.

That prevents the destruction of the person's immune system.

"Eric was an incredibly brave young man," said blood and marrow transplant program director Dr. John Wagner, an internationally recognized pioneer in cord blood transplantation at the University of Minnesota.

"Even when he was sick, Eric told me that one day he and Timothy Brown would stand together as firsts: Timothy as the first person to be cured of HIV after a bone marrow transplantation and Eric as the first to be cured of HIV after cord blood transplantation from donors with the CCR5 variant."

Wagner said he hopes that Eric's case compels all cord blood banks worldwide to test blood stem cells for CCR5 to find better matched units for patients. Today, very few units within cord blood inventories have been tested for these genetic variants, the U stated.