Lifestyle & Belief

Timothy Ray Brown, man 'cured' of HIV, sparks new debate


Timothy Ray Brown (L), also known as “The Berlin Patient”, the first man to be considered cured of HIV, next to German oncologist Gero Hütter (R) answers questions from journalists during the International Symposium HIV & Emerging Infectious Diseases (ISHEID), on May 23, 2012.


Gerard Julien

Timothy Ray Brown, otherwise known as the "Berlin patient," has been the center of controversy since it was announced that he was considered cured of HIV nearly five years ago. 

In 2006, Brown, from Seatlle, Washington, received a bone marrow transplant for his leukemia in Berlin, Germany. The marrow came from a donor who had the strain of "killer" cells called cytotoxic T lymphocyte (CTL). These cells are found in only 1 in 300 people, providing them with the ability to fight off HIV naturally.

Brown has been hailed as a miracle, but new data presented last week in Spain is now raising difficult questions. Is Brown actually HIV-free? What actually constitutes a cure for the disease? 

NPR reported that researchers combed through 9 billion of Brown's cells, retrieved from his blood, lymph nodes, spinal fluid and intestinal tract. Four labs found no trace of HIV in his blood cells, but three groups, using tests at the very limit of detectability, think they have identified bits of HIV genetic material — two from blood plasma and one from intestinal cells.

Alain Lafeuillade of the General Hospital in Toulon, France, issued a press release titled, "The So Called HIV Cured 'Berlin' Patient Still Has Detectable HIV in His Body," to challenge the fact that Brown had been cured. In it he states that although  Brown's HIV could have evolved and persisted over the last five years, the data also raises the possibility that Brown has been reinfected.

Virologist Steven Yukl of the University of California, San Francisco, strongly objected to Lafeuillade's conclusion. Yuki told Salon, that there are some signs of the virus, however the researchers are unsure if they are real, or due to contamination.

Yuki added, "At this point, we can't say for sure whether there's been complete eradication of HIV. The point of the presentation was to raise the question of how do we define a cure and, at this level of detection, how do we know the signal is real?"

For his part, Brown said he will continue to play "guinea pig" until he is "just one of many cured patients." 

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