Remembering a stem cell pioneer in the fight against HIV/AIDS

Timothy Ray Brown. Photo courtesy Seattle Times

Timothy Ray Brown, a man who was the first person to be cured of HIV, giving hope to millions of people around the world, died at his home in Palm Springs this week. He was just 54 years old.

For years Brown was known simply as “the Berlin patient” because that was where he was living when he made medical history. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1995 and began taking medications to keep the virus under control. He was later also diagnosed with leukemia. He underwent several rounds of treatment for the leukemia, but it kept recurring.

By 2007 Brown’s physician decided the best way to treat the leukemia was with a blood stem cell transplant. But the doctor also wanted to see if using the stem cells from a donor who had a natural immunity to the AIDS virus could help treat Brown’s HIV. While such donors are very rare, the doctor succeeded in finding one whose bone marrow carried the CCR5 gene, a mutation that is believed to provide resistance to HIV. The transplant was a success, putting Brown’s leukemia into remission and eliminating detectable traces of HIV. For the first time in years he was able to stop taking the medications that had helped keep the virus under control.

The procedure quickly garnered world-wide attention. But not everyone was convinced it was real. Some questioned if Brown’s HIV had really been eradicated and speculated that the virus was merely suppressed. But with each passing year, and no signs of the virus recurring, more and more people came to believe it was a cure.

Initially Brown remained in the background, preferring not to be identified. But three years after his transplant he decided he had to come forward and put a face on “the Berlin patient”. In an interview with the website ContagionLive he explained why:

“At some point, I decided I didn’t want to be the only person in the world cured of H.I.V.,” I wanted there to be more. And the way to do that was to show the world who I am and be an advocate for H.I.V.”

He proved to be a powerful advocate, talking at international conferences and serving as living-proof that stem cells could help lead to a cure for HIV.

But while he managed to beat HIV, he could not beat leukemia. He suffered relapses that required another transplant and a difficult recovery. When it returned again this time, there was little physicians could do.

But Timothy Ray Brown did get to see his hope of not being the only patient cured seemingly come true. In September of last year researchers announced they had successfully treated a second person, known as “the London patient” using the same technique that cured Brown.

While it wasn’t the role he would have chosen Brown was a pioneer. His experience showed that a deadly virus could be cured. His courage in not just overcoming the virus but in overcoming his own reluctance to take center stage and becoming a symbol of hope for millions remain and will never die.  

Since Brown’s transplant many other scientists have attempted to replicate the procedure that cured Brown, in the hopes of making it available to many more people.

CIRM has funded three clinical trials targeting HIV, two of which are still active. Dr. Mehrdad Abedi at UC Davis and Dr. John Zaia at City of Hope are both using the patient’s own blood forming stem cells to try and defeat the virus.

If they succeed, some of the credit should go to Timothy Ray Brown, the man who led the way.