World’s only person cured of HIV speaks in Philippi

Timothy Ray Brown tells residents of Philippi how he was cured from HIV.

It sounds like a fairy-tale or far-fetched story, but Timothy Ray Brown, of America, is the only known person in the world who has been cured from the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV).

The 51-year-old was diagnosed with HIV in 1995 while living in Berlin, Germany and the only thing that came to his mind after the doctors broke the devastating news was that he was facing a death sentence.

He said it never crossed his mind that one day he would defeat the virus and be HIV negative.

On Friday September 8, the Desmond Tutu HIV Foundation and various community stakeholders held an engaging dialogue with Mr Brown at Philippi Village where he detailed precisely how he was cured.

Those who attended the three-hour dialogue were left touched by his poignant story.

Mr Brown said he lived with HIV for 10 years and when he was diagnosed he had to take 40 pills a day to treat the virus. But shortly before he was cured, he was taking five pills a day.

However, his health took a difficult turn in 2006 when he was diagnosed with leukaemia and urgently needed a bone morrow transplant.

He said the doctors told him that he only had three months to live. Mr Brown said what surprised him was when the doctors suggested that they needed to look for a donor whose bone marrow was resistant to HIV.

He explains that the doctors believed that would be the only thing to cure the cancer completely.

But they were oblivious that the bone marrow transplant would lead to his HIV being cured. In 2007, Mr Brown, who was HIV positive, underwent a procedure known as hematopoietic stem cell transplantation to treat the leukaemia performed by a team of doctors in Berlin. From 60 matching donors, they selected a donor who had the “delta 32” mutation on the CCR5 receptor. This genetic trait confers resistance to HIV infection by blocking attachment of HIV to the cell. Roughly 10% of people of European ancestry have this inherited mutation, but it is rarer in other populations.

When the cells re-established themselves in his body they completely killed the HIV virus. He said at the time the doctors referred to him as the “Berlin Patient” to protect his identity.

“I stopped taking the HIV medication after the operation was done. I honestly never believed that I was cured and I thought that the doctors were pulling a prank on me. When I heard that I had HIV I believed that was the end of my life. The best part of my cure is that I no longer need to take medication again in my life. I was lucky that I had donors willing to help,” he said.

He said his doctors suggested that they needed to specific look for a donor that had a delta 32 gene deletion in their genetic body, which meant that their CD 4 T-cells are naturally immune from the HIV invasion. He said he underwent rigorous rounds of chemotherapy which killed off his cancerous immune systems, but treatment was painful and nearly killed him. He said the donor’s cells started to rebuilt a new immune system that was resistant to HIV. He said the doctors tested every tissue in his body, including taking a small sample of his brain to ascertain whether there was no replication of the disease in his body.

But the doctors and researchers could not detect the disease. He said after the doctors confirmed that he was HIV negative, he requested them to allow him to use the Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PREP) as a preventive HIV method. He described his HIV healing process as remarkable.

“I want other people to be cured from HIV -I can’t be the only one,” he said. Deputy director of the Desmond Tutu HIV Centre of the University Cape Town, Dr Linda-Gail Bekker, said Mr Brown was cured through a mixture of gene modification and bone marrow transplant and that is not the kind of cure which could be rolled out in a big way. She said the dialogue was also to educate the residents on how to bring the virus under control and dispel other myths that still exist about HIV. She said that this gives the researchers and doctors hope that there could be a cure.

She said this dialogue aimed to educate people about the disease but asserted that there is still no cure for HIV and people must continue to take their HIV medication.