Man Cured of HIV Using Stem Cells. Fluke or Hope?

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Timothy Ray Brown HIV cured

Timothy Ray Brown has been cured of HIV.

Timothy Ray Brown has officially been declared cured of HIV. A US citizen living in Germany with HIV, Brown was treated for leukemia in 2007 at the Charite University of Medicine in Berlin. As part of his treatment, he received stem cell transplants from a donor with a naturally occurring genetic resistance to HIV. In February of 2009, his doctors published a report in the New England Journal of Medicine detailing the apparent absence of the HIV virus in his system after being treated for leukemia. Now, in the medical journal Blood, those doctors have described the even more rigorous examination of his body, including looking at brain and spinal samples, that they performed to demonstrate that Brown no longer has HIV. The virus isn’t simply in regression, it’s gone. While the exact methods used to remove HIV from Brown will likely prove too severe to see use in other patients, his cure raises the possibility of new avenues of attack against the disease. Should this case raise our hopes about a universal cure for HIV/AIDS? Yes, but with some big caveats.

Brown’s path to a cure was not for the faint of heart. I discussed part of his case history in my coverage of his condition in the beginning of this year, but it’s remarkable enough to bear repeating. Having contracted HIV in the ’90s, Brown was being successfully treated using anti-retroviral drugs (HAART) but developed acute myeloid leukemia in 2006. To treat the cancer, Brown was subjected to three rounds of chemotherapy, drastically impairing his immune system. It also induced renal failure, and so his HAART treatments had to end. Predictably, the levels of HIV in his system spiked. After three months he was able to resume standard HIV therapy and his levels dropped again. That’s when the cancer returned stronger than ever. With his infected immune system nearly destroyed, he was ready to have it augmented by someone else’s. Brown received bone marrow stem cell transplants from a donor, a process that carried a significant risk of death (about one in three don’t survive) but that would allow the donor’s immune system cells to grow inside him. A year after this dangerous procedure he had to go through it again. Despite all these opportunities for disaster, Brown survived.

More than that, his HIV was gone. Brown’s stem cell donor had been selected because he possessed a genetic variation that causes a receptor (CCR5) to be missing from his cells. This variation occurs in around 1% of people of Caucasian descent and has been known to confer a strong resistance to select strains of HIV by interfering with the way the virus enters human cells. It’s thought that the damage to his immune system, followed by the stem cell transplant, caused all traces of HIV to be removed from Brown’s body. Chemo killed off infected cells and the new resistant cells kept the virus from rebounding.

All this came at a price, however. Brown has been on immuno-suppressive drugs for 38 months. Following his transplant (17 months) he developed a neurological condition that required a brain biopsy and sampling of cerebrospinal fluid. According to AIDSMap, that neurological condition led to injury including temporary blindness, and Brown is still undergoing physiological and speech therapy to help him recover.

During his long recovery, doctors continually took samples of his immune system, measured the level of HIV antibodies, and examined the biopsied brain sample. Every indicator showed that Brown’s immune system was not only being populated by the donor cells, but that the viral load in his body was apparently zero. In Blood, the doctors at Charite University of Medicine point out that the donor cells are still susceptible to certain strains of HIV. In fact, Brown had those strains! Despite this remaining susceptibility, the virus never rebounded. It looks to have been completely cleared. As I said when discussing Brown earlier this year, the complete removal of HIV with stem cells containing a genetic variant that shouldn’t have provided him universal protection is very curious. It shows that there is still much to learn about genetic resistance to the virus.

Brown’s own clinical history has proven harsh, but his ongoing legacy is going to provide some remarkable hope to HIV patients everywhere. Will we subject patients to multiple rounds of chemotherapy followed by stem cell transplants from special donors with faulty CCR5 receptors? I certainly hope not, especially considering how effective HAART can be when managing HIV/AIDS. Repeating Brown’s ordeal would be unnecessarily risky for patients. One in three would likely die! Yet there are parts of his treatment that could be pursued. According to AIDSMap, doctors have explored the possibility of collecting large stores of stem cells from donors with the right kind of CCR5-based resistance. Researchers are also performing clinical trials to study ways in which the CCR5 receptor could be knocked out of cells using gene therapy. Why receive a transplant when you can just teach your cells to bar their doors against HIV?

Genetic therapies may prove to be a possible cure for HIV/AIDS. There are, in fact, multiple targets for such treatments. We recently discussed how variations in the HLA-B protein and gene can also provide protection against the disease. It will take several years to understand and perfect such roadblocks that we can use to stop the spread of HIV in the body. While gene therapies are promising avenues of research, and are reinforced in theory by Brown’s case history, such cures won’t be around for a while.

That long-term hope without short-term payoff is how I would characterize this case in general. The power of the CCR5 variation and its ability to be transferred to others through stem cell transplant is remarkable. Yet while we may see Brown’s treatment repeated, it is simply not a practical therapy for most HIV patients. Eventually, however, we’ll have enough genetic targets, and enough experience hitting them, that we’ll be able to “upgrade” the immune systems of the HIV infected with minimal risk to their lives. With any luck, such treatments will be cheap enough that they can be provided to people all over the world. Who knows, maybe we’ll even find a way to provide such ‘natural’ resistance as a preventative measure. Brown’s heroic journey through chemotherapy and stem cell transplants, his defeat of cancer and HIV, and his living proof that a cure is possible, make for a momentous occasion. It should give us hope, but it will also demand patience.

[image credit: Peter Rigaud]
[sources: Hutter et al 2009, NEJM; Allers et al 2010, Blood; AIDSMap]

Discussion — 8 Responses

  • Anonymous December 23, 2010 on 2:12 am

    The agency also estimates there about 56,000 new cases of HIV each year. the free community site strictly for poz singles and friends. We founded the site after an immediate family member, who is HIV positive, explained to us how difficult it was to find love and friendship because of the stigmas attached to her condition.

  • Anonymous December 24, 2010 on 2:03 am

    Valuable progress has been made in increasing access to HIV and AIDS services, yet greater commitment is needed around the world if the goal of universal access is to be achieved. Millions of people continue to be infected with HIV every year. The HIV community claims that Their members has increased a lot in 2010. I agree that More education is key against HIV. Hope all people can find love and support, never feel lonely again!

  • knowledge_treehouse June 16, 2011 on 8:12 am

    I believe its possible to cure HIV but I have to ask how many times this man tested positive for HIV – HIV tests have a high false-positive rate.

  • umojaresearch June 10, 2012 on 1:44 pm

    The article about Stem Cells is interesting, but many African Americans and others who believe they have AIDS/HIV, may not have AIDS at all.

    If you carefully read what the producers of these AIDS tests say in writing, they suggest the AIDS/HIV test is not conclusive, or proof you have AIDS/HIV. You can also find on the Internet additional information suggesting; “Since the accuracy for HIV antibody tests has never been properly established, it is not possible to claim that a positive test indicates a current, active HIV infection or even to know what it may indicate”.

    If we go beyond the fact AIDS/HIV is a man-made genetically engineered disease, proved by Virologist as early as 1988 and exposed by Dr. Robert B. Strecker in his Video The Strecker Memorandum, in addition to the research of Brother Zears Miles, we really need to look at what the disease is and how it replicates.

    For a Stem Cell to cure AIDS/HIV, it would have to inhibit the Protein Enzyme, Reverse Transcriptase. The AIDS/HIV Virus must have this protein enzyme to replicate, or reproduce itself. So if the Stem Cell therapy is not inhibiting this enzyme, people may line up for another unproven cure, the same as they line up to be tested for a disease which they my receive a “False Positive” test results. Africans and other dark skinned people naturally have fewer “T-Cells” than white people and many of the African, or black population when tested have been proven to be “False Positive” because of their naturally low T-Cell Count.

    Many of the drugs used to supposedly cure AIDS/HIV are synthetic drugs, which try to block the reverse transcriptase, but actually do the same damage AIDS does, by destroying the Immune System. As victims continue to take these drugs, their Immune Systems are further depressed and the worry only adds to an ineffective Immune System, which is unable to fight off any illness. The human body is organic and as early as 1900, it was proven that all drugs, including aspirin are harmful to your good health.

    The interesting point of cure, as far as AIDS is concerned, is that the doctors and scientists who have given cures or evidence of what has cured AIDS, Cancer and other diseases have been attacked by the American Medical Association and the U.S. Government. The Medical Industry has suppressed the Truth of Natural Cures for over a hundred years.

    Many diseases have been completely remedied by proper diet, while others means have been Herbs. It wasn’t until mid 1990’s that scientists rediscovered the power of natures remedy for the majority of viruses, bacteria, and fungus and among the strongest natural antibiotic the Olive Leaf Extract, used for thousands of years and known as the Tree Of Life by the Ancients. Interestingly enough, scientists found that the Olive Leaf Extract inhibits the Enzyme Reverse Transcriptase, kills almost all Bacteria, Virus and Fungus.

    So we are led astray constantly with lies and additional lies of drugs, testing and now Stem Cells, the really big question is, “Where Is The Proof”.

    Change your diet and change your life, eat more raw live foods and drink more fresh squeezed juices. That type of diet is the cure of most disease and has been proven since 1912 in the U.S.

    Good Luck To you All

    UMOJA Research
    Since 1986
    AIDS, Cancer, Disease, Causes and Cures, Nutrition & Agriculture


    1. Olive Leaf Extract, Dr. Morton Walker
    2. Nutrition Against Disease, Roger J. Williams
    3. Racketeering in Medicine, The Suppression of Alternatives, James P. Carter, M.D., Dr.P.H
    4. DVD, The Strecker Memorandum, Dr. Robert B. Strecker
    5. DVD, Cancer The Forbidden Cures, Massimo Mazzucco
    6. DVD, Dying To Have Known, The Evidence Behind Natural Healing, Steve Kroschel

  • Nelly Jen January 20, 2014 on 8:52 pm

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  • Nelly Jen January 20, 2014 on 9:17 pm

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