Timothy Ray Brown, First Patient to Be Cured of HIV, Dies of Leukemia

HIV/AIDS Ribbon

Timothy Ray Brown, dubbed the “Berlin Patient,” the first ever to be cured of HIV, died from cancer on September 29.

Brown was cured of HIV in 2007. He was diagnosed in 1995, and about a decade later was diagnosed with leukemia. A physician at the Free University of Berlin used a stem cell transplant from a donor with a rare genetic mutation that provided natural resistance to HIV in hopes of curing both diseases. It took two procedures but was successful, and in 2008 Brown was announced free of both HIV and leukemia.

Two years later he went public with the announcement.

“I am living proof that there could be a cure for AIDS,” he told Agence France-Presse (AFP) in 2012. “It’s very wonderful, being cured of HIV.”

In 2019, a second HIV patient, Adam Castillejo, underwent a similar procedure. He was dubbed the “London Patient.” A UK resident diagnosed with HIV in 2003, Castillejo began antiretroviral therapy in 2012. He was later diagnosed with advanced Hodgkin’s lymphoma. He was treated with a stem cell transplant in 2016 after he received chemotherapy. He then continued to receive antiretroviral therapy for 16 months.

To evaluate whether the HIV-1 infection was actually in remission, he went off the usual antiretroviral therapy. After he had been in remission for 18 months, testing confirmed that his HIV viral load was undetectable.

The donors for both men carried a rare genetic mutation called CCR5-delta 32. This made these patients resistant to HIV. Castillejo is currently living HIV-free.

Brown, 54, was born in the U.S. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1995 while living in Berlin. He developed acute myeloid leukemia in 2007.

The leukemia that eventually led to his HIV cure returned this year, where it metastasized to his brain and spinal cord.

Brown’s partner, Tim Hoeffgen, posted on Facebook, “It is with great sadness that I announce that Timothy passed away … surrounded by myself and friends, after a five-month battle with leukemia. Tim committed his life’s work to telling his story about his HIV cure and became an ambassador of hope.”

The procedure itself is not routinely used to treat HIV because it is both too risky and aggressive. It is primarily used to treat certain types of cancer. In the case of both Brown and Castillejo, it was the combination of HIV and resultant cancers that are effectively treated with stem cell transplants, that made it feasible. Nonetheless, it gave patients hope that there may someday be a cure.

“We owe Timothy and his doctor, Gero Hutter, a great deal of gratitude for opening the door for scientists to explore the concept that a cure for HIV is possible,” stated Adeeba Kamarulzaman, president of the International Aids Society (IAS).

Sharon Lewin, director of the Doherty Institute in Melbourne, Australia, noted, “Although the cases of Timothy and Adam are not a viable large-scale strategy for a cure, they do represent a critical moment in the search for an HIV cure. Timothy was a champion and advocate for keeping an HIV cure on the political and scientific agenda. It is the hope of the scientific community that one day we can honor his legacy with a safe, cost-effective and widely accessible strategy to achieve HIV remission and cure using gene editing or techniques that boost immune control.”

Although largely a treatable disease, HIV/AIDS affects about 37 million people globally, and about 1 million people die from HIV-related causes each year. Treatment typically involves a cocktail of antiretroviral therapy, which HIV patients take their entire lives.

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