Timothy Ray Brown — the only known person to be cured of HIV — thought a cure was science fiction when his doctor raised the idea a decade ago.
Now, softly-spoken Brown is the poster guy for defeating HIV and is speaking at the University of Cape Town on Monday evening in support of cure research.
“I don’t want to be the only one cured of HIV‚ it is a very lonely place‚” said the man known initially as the “Berlin Patient” after where he was treated.
The life-threatening treatments he got for leukaemia‚ which also eliminated HIV in his body‚ are too risky to test on other people with HIV but his case demonstrated that a cure is possible.
“When I met Annie Lennox I said: ‘Hi‚ I’m Timothy Ray Brown’ and she said: ‘I know who you are. I know everything about you’‚” said the American‚ who has been photographed with Hollywood actress Sharon Stone and met Harry Belafonte.
The 51-year-old said: “Nobody wants to go through what I went through‚ when I had a 50% (chance) of not surviving the bone-marrow transplants but I am cured of leukaemia and HIV!”
February 7 in 2007 was the last time that Brown‚ who was diagnosed with HIV in 1995‚ took antiretrovirals. He didn’t want the life-saving drugs to interfere with the donor cells he needed to treat leukaemia.
He may not have been given this choice of stopping ARVs in the US for ethical reasons. “My cure could not have happened in the US and the medical insurance system is really horrible‚” he said.
He had stem cell transplants from a donor who had rare HIV-resistant blood cells‚ for his leukaemia in 2007 and 2008.
For about three months after Brown’s first transplant‚ the HIV viral load soared in his body and then effectively disappeared like his doctor Gero Hütter had planned when selecting the donor.
Brown knew something was up when he noticed at the gym that he was building muscle again after being wasted from HIV.
By June 2007 he was back at work and his immunity was rising. But his leukaemia recurred‚ prompting a second bone-marrow transplant in 2008.
This recovery started off rocky. After the second transplant his sight was temporarily impaired‚ he could hardly walk and could not drive.
“I thought my mind was normal but I started mumbling and the doctors thought I may have leukaemia in my brain. They decided to do a brain biopsy and that’s when they found out I had neither leukaemia nor HIV‚” he said.
“The brain is one place where HIV likes to hide in reservoirs. This proved I did not have HIV in my body at all.”
He said the biopsy left a bubble in his brain which has caused ongoing balance problems. A month after the operation Brown went to a centre for brain rehabilitation.
Now he lives in Palm Springs‚ California‚ with his partner of five years and walks dogs for a living.
Despite his unique status‚ Brown still identifies with the HIV positive community.
He became a public figure in December 2010 after revealing in a German magazine that he was the Berlin Patient.
Subsequently there has been speculation that other patients who had stem cell transplants‚ like the “Boston patients” and “Mississippi baby”‚ have been cured of HIV but their virus has bounded back.
Scientists are still mulling over the mystery of Brown’s cure.
“Nobel scientist Dr David Baltimore said: ‘In medical science nothing is impossible’‚” said Brown‚ who celebrated his 10th HIV-free birthday this year.