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A “Birthday” Gift: The Story of a Cure

, by San Francisco AIDS Foundation

Today is a unique “birthday” for Timothy Ray Brown, formerly known as the “Berlin Patient,” who was cured of HIV following stem cell transplant procedures that essentially regrew his immune cells.

In this excerpt from his chapter in How AIDS Ends, San Francisco AIDS Foundation’s first-of-its-kind anthology, Mr. Brown offers a glimpse into the procedures that beat his leukemia and cured his HIV infection, and shares how a series of coincidences led to a huge leap forward in the quest for a cure.

Cure: The Beginning of the End of HIV and AIDS

By Timothy Ray Brown

I used to have HIV.

Nearly five years ago, after living with the virus for more than a decade, I was cured—thanks to a leukemia diagnosis and one cancer doc who thought outside the box.

…Although the first cancer specialist I saw had a gut feeling that it wasn’t anything serious, a bone marrow biopsy yielded a diagnosis of acute myeloid leukemia. That was a bigger shock than finding out I had HIV. I was leery about going to the hospital, because my partner had been treated badly there after telling the nurses he had HIV. So the doctor made calls instead to a hospital linked with Berlin University—and he happened to get Gero Hütter on the phone. Gero said, “Send him over!” So I found out I had leukemia, and the next day I was in the hospital receiving chemotherapy.

Dr. Hütter was young, and in medical school he had learned that people with a certain genetic mutation, called CCR5-delta-32, are essentially immune to HIV because their cells lack an entry point for the virus. Before my third round of chemo, I’d had blood taken for a possible stem cell transplant to cure the leukemia, and Dr. Hütter found an unusually high number of matches for me. That gave him an idea: Why not look for a CCR5-negative donor? Would those stem cells essentially grow me a new immune system, uninfected with HIV?

…For people who receive stem cell transplants, the day of their transplant is called their “birthday.” On February 7, 2007, I had my first birthday. Three months after that, tests showed no sign of HIV in my blood. Dr. Hütter asked me if I would do a colonoscopy so they could look for signs of HIV in colon tissue; they didn’t find any.

That’s when I started to hear the word “cured.”

…I’ve been asked to speak at meetings around the world, and I’ve seen my story give people a lot of hope—researchers pursuing a cure, after years of being afraid to even use the word, and people who are themselves living with HIV. It’s given scientists an idea of what’s possible. In fact, there are trials happening right now with gene therapies that are trying to prompt the CCR5 deletion, but without the painful and risky procedures I had. This approach gives me hope; I think gene therapies will be a big part of the answer to finding an end to HIV and AIDS, and to curing other diseases….

. . .

To read Timothy Ray Brown’s full chapter, visit Amazon.com or KoboBooks.com to purchase the digital book for 99 cents. All profits from sales of the book go to support San Francisco AIDS Foundation’s free services for HIV prevention and care in communities hardest hit by HIV.

How AIDS Ends features a foreword by President Bill Clinton and chapters by Timothy Ray Brown, Jeanne White Ginder, Cleve Jones, Barbara Lee, Mark Dybul, Paul Farmer, Robert Gallo, Mervyn Silverman, Diane Havlir, Scott Wiener, LZ Granderson, Hank Plante, Eduardo Xol, and Neil Giuliano. Read more about the book here.

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