Timothy Brown became the first person in the world cured of HIV after having undergone a stem cell transplant. He was diagnosed with HIV in 1995. For more than 10 years, he coped with the virus with antiretroviral medications while pursuing his career as a translator in Germany.
The miracle happened in 2007, now confirmed, when doctors decided that the man needs a transplant to have a chance to fight leukemia. Timothy, now aged 46, was cured after stem cells from the donor had a genetic mutation that made him immune to the virus. The virus remained undetectable over three years after the first transplant. Although the researchers and some commentators have characterized this result as a cure, others suggest that the virus may remain hidden in tissues such as the brain (a viral latency).
Health experts hope that treatment can be applied to other patients. Currently, around 34 million people have HIV, worldwide.
The process is difficult because it is hard to find a compatible umbilical cord blood stem cells donor, especially one with cells that have that specific mutation that makes a person resistant to HIV. This is found only in 1% of North European descent, and most often in Sweden.
The Brown case demonstrates the promise of gene therapy in the fight against HIV/AIDS, but he cautions that Brown is one person in a single experiment.
A bone marrow transplant, especially from an unrelated donor, is a risky procedure. If a “healthy” person has HIV and his/her viral load is undetectable, his survival is approaching that of someone who does not have HIV. To take the risk of a bone marrow transplant makes no sense at all, unless that person has leukemia.