HIV Heroes: Timothy Ray Brown
A Death Sentence
In 1983, scientists first discovered the virus that causes AIDS. At the time, AIDS was a death sentence. There were no effective treatments, and no known cure. Even today, treatments can prolong life, but they don’t cure the disease.
The HIV virus has proved elusive because it attacks the very same immune cells—called T cells—that normally protect the body against viruses. The virus also mutates—or changes—and hides in cells, making it difficult for drugs to destroy.
Life with AIDS
Today, people can live for many years with HIV/AIDS. However, they must rely on a daily cocktail of medications called antiretroviral drugs, which can cause severe side effects.
These drugs reduce the amount of HIV in the body, but they can’t wipe it out completely. The virus remains, lurking in the cells. As soon as someone with HIV stops taking the drugs, the HIV virus comes back.
Attempts At a Cure
In their efforts to cure AIDS, researchers have focused on two possible therapies. One is a sterilizing cure that would remove all traces of the virus from the body. The other is a functional cure.
Although it would not wipe out the virus, it would keep a person healthy without having to take antiretroviral drugs. Researchers said it would take many years before anyone could be cured of AIDS. Timothy Ray Brown proved them wrong.
Timothy Ray Brown
Timothy Ray Brown was born in Seattle, Washington. In 1995, he was enrolled in school in Berlin, Germany when he was diagnosed with HIV. Brown’s doctors prescribed a cocktail of antiretroviral drugs to keep his disease under control.
For more than a decade, Brown lived well on the drugs. Then, in 2007, Brown received another devastating diagnosis: he had acute myeloid leukemia—cancer of the blood.
Two Diseases—One Remarkable Treatment
To combat the leukemia, doctors used chemotherapy to kill off the damaged immune cells. Then, they performed two stem cell transplants to build Brown’s immune system back up.
However, they didn’t use just any stem cell donor. The donor they chose had a very rare mutation in a gene called CCR5, which makes people resistant to the HIV virus. During the stem cell transplant, that genetic variation transferred to Brown’s cells.
Brown Is Cured
In February 2009, Brown’s doctors published their findings in The New England Journal of Medicine. Not only had the stem cell treatments rid Brown of his leukemia, but the doctors couldn’t find any traces of the HIV virus remaining in his system.
Brown’s doctors called their results “remarkable.” Brown was able to go off his antiretroviral medicines and live HIV-free. Known as the “The Berlin Patient,” he was the first—and currently the only—person to be cured of HIV.
Questions About the Cure
Doctors spent a lot of time combing through billions of Brown’s cells to make sure no traces of HIV remained. But in 2012, when other groups of researchers performed highly sensitive tests on his cells, they found traces of HIV genetic material.
Scientists said these findings meant Brown might still be infected with HIV. Brown and his doctors insisted that he was still HIV-free.
Pushing for More AIDS Research
Since Brown received his treatment, he has become an advocate for HIV research. In 2012, he launched the Timothy Ray Brown Foundation to help find a cure for HIV/AIDS—not only for himself, but for all of the estimated 34 million people living with the disease around the world.
Brown said it was the only foundation in the country solely dedicated to curing HIV. “I dream of that day and believe I will see it,” he’s said.
Using Genes to Cure HIV
Stem cell treatment isn’t practical for everyone with HIV. It’s a risky and expensive operation. And, it’s very hard to find people with the HIV-resistant gene mutation to donate stem cells.
Instead, scientists are trying to use gene therapy, modifying a patient’s own immune cells, to make them fight off HIV. A few years ago, they tried it with a 50-year-old patient. Although he wasn’t cured, the treatment lowered the amount of HIV in his blood.
- Hutter, G., Nowak, D., Mossner, M., Ganeola, S., Mubig, A., Allers, K., et al. (2009). Long-term control of HIV by CCR5 Delta32/Delta32 Stem-Cell Transplantation. The New England Journal of Medicine, 360: 692-698. Retrieved December 17, 2013 from http://www.nejm.org/doi/full/10.1056/NEJMoa0802905#t=articleTop.
- Berlin Patient. (n.d.). DefeatHIV. Retrieved December 17, 2013 from http://defeathiv.org/berlin/.
- Cure for AIDS. (n.d.). AVERT. Retrieved December 17, 2013 from http://www.avert.org/cure-aids.htm.
- Timothy Ray Brown—Bio. (n.d.). World AIDS Institute. Retrieved December 17, 2013 from http://worldaidsinstitute.org/timothy-ray-brown-bio/.
- Timothy Ray Brown: The Story Behind an HIV Cure. (n.d.). Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center. Retrieved December 17, 2013 from http://www.fhcrc.org/en/treatment/treatment-research/HIV-vaccine-treatment/timothy-brown-HIV-cure.html.
- HIV/AIDS. (2013). World Health Organization. Retrieved December 17, 2013 from http://www.who.int/gho/hiv/en/.
- Pollack, Andrew. (2011). New Hope of a Cure for H.I.V. The New York Times. Retrieved December 17, 2013 from http://www.nytimes.com/2011/11/29/health/new-hope-of-a-cure-for-hiv.html?pagewanted=all.