In February 2007, Timothy Ray Brown was HIV-positive. In March 2016, he is not. The so-called “Berlin patient” is the only person ever to have been cured of HIV, following two bone marrow transplants he received as treatment for leukemia — the first in 2007 and the second in 2008. Despite the success of the procedure, there’s no actual cure for HIV, nor is there a cure for AIDS.
“At the time we were doing the transplant, we knew we were doing something very special that could change the whole medical world if it worked,” German physician Gero Hütter said of the operation.
Medical advances have certainly changed the meaning of coping with HIV — indeed, they’ve made it possible to live a long time with the virus. Still, it’s no exaggeration to say that such a cure for HIV could change the world for the approximately 35 million people in it who are living with the virus. So why hasn’t it? In short, because the genetic mutation that makes HIV immunity possible, CCR5 delta 32, is rare; when it’s inherited from both parents, cells lack the receptor that allows HIV to enter, which means that person is effectively immune to the virus. Hütter was able to find someone with this mutation and to use their stem cells in the bone marrow transplant, so that after chemotherapy had killed of most of Brown’s blood cells, his body repopulated with HIV-resistant cells. Read more