Brown’s case put to rest the notion that a cure for HIV was impossible and gave rise to substantial investments in cure research
Timothy Ray Brown—“the Berlin patient”—who made headlines and changed the course of AIDS history as the first person known to be cured of HIV, died on Tuesday, September 29, after a recurrence of his cancer. He was 54.
Brown’s case first surfaced in February 2008 as a brief report by a group of physicians from Germany presented as a poster at the annual Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Boston. It described a 40-year-old man—an American working in Berlin—whose HIV had been under good control for several years using a typical cocktail of anti-HIV drugs. Then he developed acute leukemia.
In an attempt to cure the leukemia, Brown underwent a course of radiation therapy and chemotherapy in preparation for a stem cell transplant. But in his case, rather than simply using the best match among available stem cell donors, his physicians did something very clever. They also screened potential donors for a natural mutation known as CCR5 delta32. CCR5 is the primary means by which most types of HIV infect cells. Individuals lacking this CCR5 receptor—the 1.5 percent of the Caucasian population in America and Europe with the delta32 mutation—are resistant to infection by the most common forms of HIV.
Timothy Ray Brown (right) with amfAR CEO Kevin Robert Frost
Following the initial report, amfAR quickly called together 10 experts in clinical AIDS, stem cell transplantation, and HIV virology for a two-day think tank at MIT to evaluate the data. The patient’s physician, Gero Hϋtter, presented details of the case, which were closely scrutinized by all. In a summary statement, attendees indicated that the case did indeed represent at least a functional cure. Dr. Hϋtter agreed to ask his patient to provide additional blood samples so that scientists attending the amfAR meeting could perform even more sensitive tests to attempt to further document that the virus had been erased from the patient.
It wasn’t until a stunning headline appeared in The Wall Street Journal in November 2008—A Doctor, a Mutation and a Potential Cure for AIDS—that the case entered the public sphere. Brown remained anonymous until 2010, when he returned to the U.S. from Germany.
The following year he was a featured speaker at amfAR’s HIV Cure Summit in New York City, where he was interviewed by George Stephanopoulos of ABC News. Sharing his remarkable story, Brown said he was gratified that his case was providing hope to people around the world living with HIV.
Since the early reports of his possible cure, Brown was unfailingly generous to the research community with his time, his tissues and his bodily fluids, submitting to endless prodding and poking and batteries of tests. At an international AIDS conference, he met a researcher from the Netherlands who told him, “Timothy, I know you intimately. I’ve got 7,000 copies of your blood in my freezer.” Until his death, Brown was a tireless advocate for HIV cure research, frequently speaking at meetings and conferences around the world. Throughout, he was acutely conscious of the need to provide hope, and the danger of providing false hope, to people living with HIV.
Brown leaves a profound legacy. His case emboldened the small minority in the research community at the time, including amfAR, who thought that a cure was possible. It precipitated concerted efforts to develop a cure, including the amfAR Research Collaboration on HIV Eradication and Countdown to a Cure initiatives, and amfAR’s European IciStem research consortium, originally formed to replicate Timothy Brown’s cure. Total global investments in HIV cure research went from $88 million in 2012 to $324 million in 2018.
Writing in the journal AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses in 2015, Brown said, “I did not want to be the only person in the world cured of HIV; I wanted other HIV+ patients to join my club.” He finally got his wish in 2019 with the announcement that “the London patient” appeared to have been cured by a similar stem cell transplant procedure. A “Dϋsseldorf patient” also shows no signs of HIV after a similar procedure. Timothy Ray Brown would be pleased to see his club grow.
amfAR extends its condolences to Brown’s family.