Timothy Ray Brown is a slight man with a dry sense of humour. He’s also one in 70 million – the only person in the world who has been cured of HIV.
Yesterday he addressed students at the University of Cape Town and his story is laden with suffering.
“I have had two life sentences,” 51-year-old Brown told his audience. “I was infected with HIV when the only treatment was AZT [an antiretroviral medicine with many side effects]. Then I was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia [cancer that affects the blood and bone marrow].”
Finding a cure
Ironically, it was cancer that led to Brown’s cure. Although born in the US, Brown was living in Berlin, Germany, at the time where he met Dr Gero Huetter, who decided to treat his cancer with a stem-cell transplant.
But Dr Huetter decided to experiment with Brown’s transplant. He actively sought out a donor with a rare genetic mutation called CCR5 “Delta32”. This mutation causes the body to produce CD4 cells that do not have CCR5 receptors. Without these receptors, HIV cannot bind to the CD4 cells and infect them.
It was a radical idea that “sounded like science fiction”, said Brown, who admitted that he was suspicious of Dr Huetter’s plan and initially refused it.
‘I did not want to die’
“50% of stem-cell transplant patients die and I did not want to die,” said Brown.
Brown eventually agreed when he became severely anaemic from the cancer. He received two stem-cell transplants from the special donor – one in 2007 and another in 2008 when the leukaemia returned.
“My partner at the time thought that my ARVs might interfere with the transplant so he persuaded me to stop them. He thought he was some kind of a doctor but he was a physical therapist,” said a cheery Brown.
Nonetheless, Brown did stop his pills and hasn’t needed them since because there is no evidence of HIV in his body.
“The doctors even did a brain biopsy on me. They said they were looking for the leukaemia but of course they were looking for HIV because the brain is one of the places where HIV hides,” said Brown.