By Nehru Odeh
He was not just a symbol but also an icon. Not only did he conquer death initially, but he survived to tell the tale. However the unfortunate thing is that he wasn’t twice lucky, though he got a second chance to live.
This is the story of Timothy Ray Brown, the Berlin Patient, who made history as the first person known to be cured of HIV infection, but finally succumbed to cancer on Tuesday 29 September 2020 at his home in Palm Springs, California. He was 54. Brown’s partner, Tim Hoeffgen revealed this in a social media post.
It would be recalled that Brown underwent an unusual bone marrow and stem cell transplants in 2007 and 2008 in order to eliminate both leukemia and HIV. It was that cancer that later returned to snuff life out of him.
Brown was an iconic symbol. He symbolized that there is always a second chance after HIV/AIDS, that it is possible, under special circumstances,” to rid a patient of HIV. According to Gero Huetter, the scientist who led Brown’s historic treatment that was no mean feat, as many scientists had initially doubted it could be done.
“It’s a very sad situation” that cancer returned and took his life, because he still seemed free of HIV, said Huetter, who is now medical director of a stem cell company in Dresden, Germany.
The International AIDS Society, which had Brown speak at an AIDS conference after his successful treatment also issued a statement mourning his death. It said he and Huetter are owed “a great deal of gratitude” for promoting research on a cure.
Brown was the proverbial cat with nine lives. He was diagnosed with HIV and then later leukemia but survived both after the transplants. He was working in Berlin as a translator at the time. Though transplants are known to effective for treating blood cancer, Huetter wanted to attempt to cure the HIV infection as well by using a donor with a rare gene mutation that gives natural resistance to the AIDS virus.
Still, Brown was only half lucky as his first transplant in 2007 was only partly successful: it seemed his HIV was gone but his leukemia wasn’t. He had a second transplant from the same donor in 2008 which seemed to work only for the cancer to return last year.
In a recent interview with Associated Press, Brown said of his transplant: “I’m still glad that I had it. It opened up doors that weren’t there before and inspired scientists to work harder to find a cure.”
Another survivor, Adam Castillejo – called “the London patient” until he revealed his identity earlier this year – is also believed to have been cured by a transplant similar to Brown’s in 2016.
However researchers have been testing gene therapy and other ways to try to get a similar effect because such donors are rare and transplants are medically risky, At an AIDS conference in July, researchers said they may have achieved a long-term remission in a Brazil man by using a powerful combination of drugs meant to flush dormant HIV from his body.
“(Brown) was just this magnet for people living with HIV, like me,” and embodied the hope for a cure.
“He has said from the beginning, ‘I don’t want to be the only one. They have to keep working on this,’” Mark King, a blogger in Baltimore, said.