Fri | Oct 23, 2020

First man cured of HIV infection now has terminal cancer

Published:Friday | September 25, 2020 | 10:58 AM
In this Monday, March 4, 2019 file photo, Timothy Ray Brown poses for a portrait in Seattle. Brown, an American who was known for years as the Berlin patient, had a transplant in Germany from a donor with natural resistance to the AIDS virus. It was thought to have cured Brown's leukemia and HIV. But in an interview Thursday, September 24, 2020, Brown said his cancer returned last year and has spread widely. His case has inspired scientists to seek more practical ways to try to cure the disease. (AP Photo/Manuel Valdes)

Timothy Ray Brown, the first person known to have been cured of HIV infection, says he is now terminally ill from a recurrence of the cancer that prompted his historic treatment 12 years ago.

Brown, dubbed “the Berlin patient” because of where he lived at the time, had a transplant from a donor with a rare, natural resistance to the AIDS virus.

For years, that was thought to have cured his leukaemia and his HIV infection, and he still shows no signs of HIV.

But in an interview with The Associated Press, Brown said his cancer returned last year and has spread widely.

He’s receiving hospice care where he now lives in Palm Springs, California.

“I’m still glad that I had it,” Brown said of his transplant.

“It opened up doors that weren’t there before” and inspired scientists to work harder to find a cure, which many had begun to think was not possible, the 54-year-old said Thursday.

“Timothy proved that HIV can be cured, but that’s not what inspires me about him,” said Dr Steven Deeks, an AIDS specialist at the University of California, San Francisco, who has worked with Brown to further research toward a cure.

“We took pieces of his gut, we took pieces of his lymph nodes. Every time he was asked to do something, he showed up with amazing grace,” Deeks said.

Brown was an American working as a translator in Berlin in the 1990s when he learned he had HIV. In 2006, he was diagnosed with leukaemia.

Dr Gero Huetter, a blood cancer expert at the University of Berlin, believed that a marrow transplant was Brown’s best chance of beating the leukaemia. He wondered, could he 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 have to destroy the patient’s diseased immune system with chemotherapy and radiation, then transplant the donor’s cells and hope they develop into a new immune system for the recipient.

Brown’s first transplant in 2007 was only partly successful: His HIV seemed to be gone but his leukaemia was not. He had a second transplant from the same donor in March 2008 and that one seemed to work.

Since then, Brown has repeatedly tested negative for HIV and has frequently appeared at AIDS conferences where cure research is discussed.

Follow The Gleaner on Twitter and Instagram @JamaicaGleaner and on Facebook @GleanerJamaica. Send us a message on WhatsApp at 1-876-499-0169 or email us at onlinefeedback@gleanerjm.com or editors@gleanerjm.com.