Fact Check: Can Umbilical Cords Be Used As Viable Treatment For HIV?

For over three decades, scientists have tried varying treatments for the cure of HIV with very little progress. Currently, a treatment procedure made the news after a middle-aged American woman became the third ever person to be allegedly cleared of HIV following a transplant of stem cells with blood from an umbilical cord. Could this mean an end to the 41-year-long disease or yet another break in possible treatment course rather than an actual cure?

HIV Statistics

According to public data, an estimated 37.7 million people were living with HIV across the globe in 2020. Of these, 36 million were adults and 1.7 million were children aged 0-14 years. More than half (53%) were women and girls. Around 16% of these people (6.1 million) do not know that they have the virus.

 An estimated 79.3 million people have become infected with HIV and 36.3 million people have died of AIDS-related illnesses since 1981. In 2020, 680,000 people died of AIDS-related illnesses. This number has reduced by around 64% since the peak of 1.9 million in 2004 and 1.3 million in 2010

HIV Treatments And Its Successes

According to reports, an estimated 38 million people across the globe currently live with the virus and the success rate of recovery is only 3% compared to the 73% currently being treated with antiretroviral therapy.

Many years of research have shown that a better treatment course for the virus is through stem cell therapy. This therapy is done by replacing the patient’s white blood cells with better and HIV-resistant cells.

This treatment was inspired by the success of the therapy for the treatment of cancer. The process while treating cancer involved a Bone-marrow transplant, so that the blood cells can be destroyed and regrown with the stem cells planted inside the patient’s body.

In other to achieve this, the doctors required a fresh and healthy donor of bone marrow who must have a mutated version of the CCR5 gene.  The particular variant known as the CCR5-delta 32 is found in only 1% of people who are from northern European descent, particularly Sweden.

Unfortunately, the bone marrow procedure’s success was limited because of the availability of bone marrow donors with the required mutation, leading researchers to focus on umbilical cord therapy and this worked well.

After the success of the cancer treatment, doctors tried the same stem grafting technique to treat HIV and the results were surprisingly positive. The treatment also required the CCR5-delta mutation.

The patient reported to have been cured was at the time also receiving treatment for acute myeloid leukaemia. Due to high-dose chemotherapy, her blood cells were destroyed. She received a transplant of stem cells from a family member to boost immunity and replenish her blood cell levels, then later received stem cells through the umbilical cord blood of a newborn baby who was not related to her.

According to scientists, the procedure worked majorly because the blood cell from the newborn contained the needed mutation that triggers resistance to the HIV infection.

Sharon Lewin, an HIV researcher at the Peter Doherty, Institute for Infection and Immunity in Melbourne also shared that the main advantages of the treatment is that the umbilical blood is better available than the bone marrow required for the opposite treatment. Secondly, the treatment which uses the umbilical blood does not require detailed matching of genetics between the recipients and donor.


Researchers have shared that while the patient has shown all signs of remission for both her cancer and HIV, it is still too soon to declare for certain that she has been cured of HIV.

We can conclude by saying that this stem cell grafting technique using umbilical cord blood was a success and still has a lot of room to better itself, leaving the hope for the possible and permanent cure of the disease with the therapy.

Patsy Nwogu

Reporting on data-driven featured stories and investigations.

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