amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

Ideas into Action: amfAR Think Tanks Address Approaches to Curing AIDS

By Jeffrey Laurence, M.D. 

At a research meeting in Boston In March 2008, German physician Dr. Gero Hütter presented an abstract describing the probable cure of a patient with both HIV and leukemia through a special type of stem cell transplant.  To discuss and debate these intriguing findings, a few months later amfAR convened a meeting of a dozen scientists, including Dr. Hütter. Arrangements were made to have blood samples sent from the “Berlin patient”—now known to be Timothy Ray Brown, an American living in Germany—to labs throughout the U.S. to verify Dr. Hütter’s conclusions. This initiated a series of amfAR convened meetings, or think tanks, to move the cure agenda forward. 

amfAR organized one such meeting in September 2011 to discuss avenues to more practical methods of engineering an AIDS cure that would avoid the marked side effects, expense, and difficulty in finding an appropriate stem cell donor, associated with the protocol that cured Timothy Brown.  Held at Villanova University on the outskirts of Philadelphia, this think tank generated discussion about ways to genetically engineer a patient’s own stem cells to become HIV resistant.  

In June 2012, amfAR convened a different group—scientists and clinicians involved with approaches to an AIDS cure in children—to discuss potential ways to take advantage of the special nature of the immune system in the very young. 

Most recently, in September 2012, amfAR convened two back-to-back think tanks in Amsterdam with European scientists. One focused on the role of the immune system and immune-based therapies as adjuncts to anti-HIV drugs in attempts to eradicate HIV. The other led to the formation of a group of participating physicians and scientists committed to establishing a standard protocol for performing stem cell and bone marrow transplants in HIV-infected individuals who need them for reasons other than curing AIDS, usually leukemia or lymphoma. 

Currently such guidelines don’t exist, either in the U.S. or Europe. This effort would also enable collection of data on a person’s immune status and viral load, which should help scientists define exactly what it was about Timothy Brown’s treatment—the use of a special CCR5-negative donor, the preparative chemotherapy, the radiation, the immune suppressants, or all of these conditions—that was necessary to cure him.

Dr. Laurence is amfAR’s senior scientific consultant.