Timothy Brown (left), also known as “The Berlin Patient” is the only person to have been cured of HIV.
For all the talk of an AIDS-free generation and the excitement at the prospect of ending the epidemic, here is the cruel mathematical bottom line: More than 70 million people have been infected with HIV, 36 million have died and only one person has ever been cured of AIDS.
He is Timothy Ray Brown, better known by his scientific moniker, the “Berlin Patient.”
Mr. Brown, an American from Seattle, was attending school in Berlin in 1995 when he tested positive for HIV. Like many infected, he benefited greatly from the advent of antiretrovirals the next year, essentially living without symptoms.
“I got used to a lifetime of pills and … my HIV moved to the back burner,” he said.
But in 2006, after seeking treatment for debilitating fatigue, Mr. Brown was diagnosed with leukemia, and treated with chemotherapy. A year later, the cancer returned, necessitating a bone marrow transplant.
To transplant bone marrow, a patient’s immune system must essentially be destroyed and rebuilt anew, obviously a risky prospect for someone with HIV, a virus that attacks the immune system.
Mr. Brown’s oncologist, Gero Hutter, had a novel idea. At the time, there was much excitement about something called a CCR5 receptor mutation. (CCR5 receptor allows the HIV virus to latch on the cells and infect them. But some people – about one per cent of those of European background – had a mutation which meant the virus could not attach making them resistant to HIV.)
Dr. Hutter’s idea was to look for a donor with CCR5 mutation, in the hope he could make Mr. Brown resistant to HIV.