“The Berlin Patient”: A Cure for HIV?
In 1995, San Francisco resident Timothy Ray Brown tested positive for HIV. Eleven years later, while living in Berlin, Germany, he was diagnosed with a deadly double-whammy: He also had leukemia. With his chances of survival dwindled down to nothing, he agreed to a revolutionary – and very high-risk – treatment from Dr. Gero Hütter.
Because almost all strains of HIV use a receptor called CCR5 in human cells to enter host cells and replicate, Hütter took bone marrow from a donor who had a genetic mutation in the CCR5 receptor and did a total transplant on Brown, theorizing the CCR5 mutation would make Brown more resistant to the virus. Since Brown’s surgery in 2007, he has been both cancer-free and HIV-free, with consistently negative HIV tests in every part of his body that can be biopsied. He has not taken HIV medications since his surgery, and in the March 10, 2011 issue of the medical journal Blood, Dr. Hütter wrote, “It is reasonable to conclude that cure of HIV infection has been achieved in this patient.”
But before HIV-positive patients start lining up for the “cure,” other medical experts caution the majority of patients against “The Berlin Patient” procedure. Such a treatment is not only expensive, they say, but requires finding compatible donors and also carries a high level of risk, especially for patients with high viral loads that are already trying to fight off sickness. It does, however, hold promise for more effective treatments in the future.
“The Berlin Patient shows us that a cure can be achieved, though bone marrow transplantation is obviously not the answer,” says Dr. Joel Gallant, Professor of Medicine at Johns Hopkins University and associate director of the Johns Hopkins AIDS Service. “It has been very exciting to see the recent increase in funding for cure research and to see cure become a subject that’s discussed by leading researchers at every HIV conference. A cure is still a long way off – we still don’t know exactly what it will entail – but it’s now become a realistic and achievable long-term goal.”
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