Timothy Ray Brown, 1st person cured of HIV, dies after cancer relapse

Timothy Ray Brown, famous for being the first person to be cured of HIV, has died from cancer at age 54.

Known as the “Berlin patient,” Brown was diagnosed with both HIV and acute myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the white blood cells, while living in Berlin more than a decade ago, according to Reuters. After his cancer diagnosis in 2006, Brown received radiation therapy and a bone marrow transplant in 2007; the goal of the treatment was to kill the existing cancer in his body and jumpstart production of healthy white blood cells, which are generated in the bone marrow. 

But the physician who led the procedure, Dr. Gero Huetter, aimed to treat both Brown’s leukemia and his HIV using the same operation, according to The Associated Press

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Huetter sought out a bone marrow donor with a rare genetic mutation that provides natural resistance against HIV infection. The virus normally targets white blood cells called CD4-T cells, which it infiltrates through a specific receptor on the cells’ surfaces; people with the genetic mutation have an altered version of this receptor, so the virus can’t slip inside, Live Science previously reported.

After his initial bone marrow transplant in 2007, Brown was cleared of HIV and remained free of the virus until his death, The Associated Press reported. He required a second transplant in 2008 to eliminate his leukemia, but after years in remission, the cancer returned last year and spread to his spine and brain, Reuters reported.

“I’m heartbroken that my hero is now gone. Tim was truly the sweetest person in the world,” Brown’s partner Tim Hoeffgen wrote in a Facebook post, according to Reuters.

“We owe Timothy and his doctor, Gero Huetter, a great deal of gratitude for opening the door for scientists to explore the concept that a cure for HIV is possible,” Adeeba Kamarulzaman, president of the International AIDS Society, told Reuters.

Originally published on Live Science. 

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Timothy Ray Brown, First Patient Cured of H.I.V., Dies at 54

Next, to accommodate the donor’s immune cells, they had to wipe out Mr. Brown’s own immune system by bombarding him with chemotherapy and radiation. Next came the transplant procedure itself. On that same February day, Mr. Brown stopped taking his antiretroviral medication. Three months later, after a grueling recovery in which he almost died, he was H.I.V.-free.

For Mr. Brown, the epiphany came one day in the gym, when he found that he was developing muscles again after years of wasting away. “That was kind of my proof that it was gone,” he said.

Many hurdles remained. A recurrence of leukemia required a second transplant a year later. A brain biopsy left Mr. Brown temporarily paralyzed and nearly blind. He had to be taught how to walk and talk again. His recovery, complicated by injuries from a 2009 mugging in Berlin, left him with a stiff shoulder, limited vision and neurological damage, which prevented him from resuming his work as a translator.

“My life is far from perfect,” he said in 2015, “but it is still my life.”

He was living in Nevada in 2013 when he met Mr. Hoeffgen on the Scruff dating app. They moved to Southern California in 2015. In April, Mr. Brown was admitted to a cancer hospital; his leukemia, unrelated to H.I.V., had returned. Covid-19 restrictions kept the couple together on the medical campus for weeks.

This month, Mr. Hoeffgen told Mark S. King, a blogger and AIDS activist, that Mr. Brown had terminal cancer and had been receiving home hospice care. Mr. Brown was aware that he was dying.

“I have asked him what he wants me to tell people when we make his situation public,” Mr. Hoeffgen said. “He said: ‘Tell people to keep fighting. Fight for a cure for H.I.V. that works for everyone. I never wanted to be the only one.’”

In addition to Mr. Hoeffgen, Mr. Brown is survived by his mother.

One researcher asked whether the couple would consider donating Mr. Brown’s body to science.

“I said, ‘Thank you, but no,’” Mr. Hoeffgen said. “‘I think he’s done enough.’”

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