Timothy Ray Brown, famously known as the “Berlin Patient”, is the first person in the world to be effectively cured of HIV. Having struggled with the condition for over 12 years, Brown began his difficult journey to recovery in 2007, following a cutting-edge stem cell transplant procedure.
His first-person account of all the endured hardships and eventual success, called “I Am the Berlin Patient: A Personal Reflection”, was recently published in AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses, a peer-review journal from Ann Liebert, Inc., publishers.
Brown was diagnosed with HIV in 1995, but thanks to modern protease inhibitors was able to live a relatively normal life and had a close to average life expectancy.
Ten years later, however, he began feeling increasingly weak and run down. After a host of medical tests (including an excruciatingly painful bone marrow biopsy), he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia (AML) and began receiving chemotherapy treatment.
Before the penultimate round of drugs, Brown’s doctor Gero Huetter took a sample of his blood and sent it to a stem cell donor bank which belongs to the German Red Cross. Luckily, there was a match.
“Many patients do not have any matches; I had many matches, 267. This gave Dr. Huetter the idea of looking for a donor who had a mutation called CCR5 Delta 32 on the CD4 cells making them nearly immune to HIV. CCR5 is a protein on the surface of the CD4 cell that acts as doorway for the HIV virus to enter into the cell. Take away this entryway and CD4 cells will not be infected and the person will not get HIV. His team found a donor with this mutation on the 61st attempt. The donor agreed to donate should it be necessary,” writes Brown.
Faced with a 50/50 chance of recovery, he was at first reluctant to undergo the procedure, but once the leukaemia returned, Brown began seeing the transplant as his only hope for survival.
The operation was a success – a blood test, taken 3 month after the procedure, showed his body to be completely free of the virus.
Sadly, due to a wide array of complications that arose shortly after, Brown was forced to undergo another course of stem cell injections in February 2008.
This triggered severe deliriums and nearly left him deaf and paralyzed. Brown had to learn how to walk again at a centre for patients with extreme brain injuries. Fortunately, during the next 6 years, Brown fully recovered and remains HIV-free to this day.
“This is the first time that we get to read this important story written by the man who lived it,” said Thomas Hope, PhD, editor-in-chief of AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses and professor of cell and molecular biology at Northwestern University, Feinberg School of Medicine, Chicago, IL. “It is a unique opportunity to share in the human side of this transformative experience.”
This article is part of a special issue on HIV Cure Research and is available free on the AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses website.