Last night in Houston I was privileged to hear a speech by Timothy Brown, better known as “the Berlin patient.” Mr. Brown is the first and only human being known to have been cured of AIDS.
Mr. Brown tested HIV-positive in 1995, when such a diagnosis was tantamount to a death sentence. Later, he was diagnosed with leukemia. The Grim Reaper, it appeared, was taking no chances with him.
Although an American, Mr. Brown was living in Berlin in 2007 when his doctors decided to take a novel and radical approach to dealing with his case. Since he needed a bone marrow transplant to combat his leukemia, his doctors decided to find a bone marrow donor who also possessed a rare genetic mutation known as CCR5 delta 32. People with this mutation, who are found predominately in northern Europe, enjoy a natural immunity from AIDS.
Fortunately for Mr. Brown, a willing donor with the mutation was found, and he received the bone marrow transplant. But for the transplant to be effective, he had to stop taking his HIV medications temporarily. The procedure was extremely dangerous and might have killed him. Instead, it eradicated the AIDS virus from his system. He is still alive and thriving five years later despite the fact that he has taken no HIV medications since his operation.
The medical experts in the field were at first skeptical that Mr. Brown had been cured. One of the reasons why researchers have all but given up hope of finding a cure for AIDS is that the virus is diabolically adept at hiding deep in the body’s organs and lying dormant, so as to avoid the drugs designed to destroy it.
Mr. Brown, in his remarks, described how every area of his body has been pricked, prodded, probed and punctured in an effort to find any residual traces of HIV. He even had holes drilled in his skull and brain tissue samples extracted. And yet researchers cannot find the slightest evidence of the disease.
While the procedure that cured Mr. Brown is too expensive and too dangerous to be offered to all AIDS victims, his case offers hope that experiments in gene therapy could produce a cure that could be made widely available. Such research, obviously, will cost huge sums of money. But the alternative is even more costly. According to the World Health Organization, 33.4 million people around the world are living with HIV, and 2.7 million new infections occur every year.
A recent study estimates that low- and middle-income countries will need $35 billion a year to cope with the pandemic by 2031. Rich countries will need $50 to $60 billion a year. So putting money into finding a cure could prove a prudent investment.
Mr. Brown, who is now 45, is thin, but not skeletal, and possesses a health color and a full head of dark hair. Meeting him, one would not take him for a sick man. He is obviously uncomfortable with public speaking, but he struggles bravely with his shyness in the hope that telling his story will inspire other sufferers and spur further research.
As he concluded his remarks, the shyness seemed to life for a moment. “My dream,” he said, “is not to be the man who stands before you and says, ‘I am here.’ I want to be the man who stands before you and says, ‘WE are here.’”
Suddenly, after 30 years of plague, a cure for AIDS may at last be in reach.
Hal Gordon, who wrote speeches for the Reagan White House and Gen. Colin Powell, is currently a freelance speechwriter in Houston. Web site: www.ringingwords.com.