According to UnAids, 1.5 million individuals contracted HIV in 2021, and 650 000 died from Aids-related illnesses.
While obstacles remain, significant strides have been made in the past few decades to combat HIV infections and the search for the cure remains.
Given that stem cells have long been used to treat blood cancers and other blood problems, could they also be a treatment option for South Africa’s 8.5 million HIV/Aids patients?
In 2022, five individuals were declared HIV/Aids-free as a result of stem cell transplantation, said Dr Theo Gerdener, a clinical haematologist and consultant to DKMS Africa in a statement.
Gerdener says some people have a CCR5-delta variant in their DNA that makes them resistant to HIV infection.
He adds: “It’s important to be aware of the fact that this occurs in very few people.
“Administering stem cells with the CCR5-delta variant into the body of a person who has HIV will lead to the formation of new CD4-helper lymphocytes which are resistant to HIV infection, thereby restoring their immune systems and curing them of the disease.”
Most of the HIV/Aids patients in the nation will regrettably not be able to benefit from this therapy because the CCR5-delta variant is a highly rare discovery in donors, especially those of African heritage.
“However, it has given scientists a new way of engineering stem cells to potentially make patients resistant to HIV infection following a stem cell transplant.”
Considering this, Gerdener believes that stem cell donation still has a major role to play when it comes to helping people with HIV. Patients with the virus are living longer thanks to antiretroviral therapy, however, they still have a 25 - 40% lifetime cancer risk.
According to a local study, Hodgkin Lymphoma (HL) is the most common non-Aids-defining cancer in HIV-positive patients causing 4% of HIV-related malignancies.
“Blood cancers are not preventable but are oftentimes curable provided swift and proper treatment is administered, with the disease responding very well to stem cell transplantation.
“But there is a lack of suitable donors for South African patients in the local and international registries due to very few people of African descent having registered as donors,” he said.
There is a great chance that only South African/African citizens will be a match for patients in the country, so it is imperative that locals register since they will be the only ones capable of providing their fellow citizens with the same opportunity to be cured, urged Gerdener.
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