Timothy Ray Brown, the first person known to be cured of HIV infection, says he is now terminally ill because the cancer has come back and triggered his historic treatment 12 years ago.
Brown, known as the “Berlin patient” because of his place of residence at the time, had a transplant from a donor with a rare natural resistance to the AIDS virus. This was believed to have cured his leukemia and HIV infection for years, and he still shows no signs of HIV.
However, in an interview with The Associated Press, Brown said his cancer returned last year and had spread widely. He is being cared for in a hospice where he now lives in Palm Springs, California.
“It opened doors that weren’t there before,” and inspired scientists to work harder to find a cure that many had thought impossible, the 54-year-old said Thursday.
“Timothy has proven that HIV can be cured, but that doesn’t inspire me about him,” said Dr. Steven Deeks, an AIDS specialist at the University of California at San Francisco who worked with Brown to conduct further research into a cure.
“We took pieces of his intestines, we took pieces of his lymph nodes. Every time he was asked to do something, he showed himself with amazing grace, ”said Deeks.
Brown was an American working as a translator in Berlin in the 1990s when he learned he had HIV. He was diagnosed with leukemia in 2006.
Dr. Gero Huetter, a blood cancer expert at the University of Berlin, believed that a market transplant was Brown’s best chance at beating leukemia. He wondered if he could also cure Brown’s other life-threatening disease by using a donor with a gene mutation that provides natural resistance to the AIDS virus.
Donors like these are very rare and transplants are risky. Doctors must use chemotherapy and radiation to destroy the patient’s diseased immune system, then transplant the donor cells and hope that they will develop into a new immune system for the recipient.
Brown’s first transplant in 2007 was only partially successful: his HIV appeared to be gone, but his leukemia was not. He had a second transplant from the same donor in March 2008 and it appeared to be working.
Since then, Brown has repeatedly tested HIV negative and has appeared frequently at AIDS conferences discussing healing research.
“He was like an ambassador of hope,” said Brown’s partner Tim Hoeffgen.
A second man, Adam Castillejo, who was dubbed “the London patient” until he revealed his identity earlier this year, is also said to have been cured by a transplant similar to Brown’s in 2016.
However, donors like these are rare and the procedure is too risky to be widespread.
Scientists have tested gene therapy and other methods to try to get the effects of the beneficial gene mutation without having to do a transplant. At an AIDS conference in July, researchers said they may have achieved long-term remission in a Brazilian through the use of a powerful combination of drugs designed to clear dormant HIV from his body.
Mark King, a Baltimore man who blogs for people with HIV, said he spoke to Brown earlier this week and is grateful for what Brown has contributed to AIDS research.
“It is unfathomable what value he had for the world as an object of science. Yet this is also a person who is a kind, humble guy who certainly never asked about the spotlight, ”King said. “I think the world of him.”
The Associated Press Department of Health and Science is supported by the Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s Department of Science Education. The AP is solely responsible for all content.