Man cured of HIV shares message of inspiration, hope

Sep 13, 2018

Timothy Ray Brown is known more widely as “The Berlin Patient:” the only man in the world to have been cured of HIV. 

He shared his story and a message of hope with an audience at St. Peter’s Episcopal Church on September 12.

The key to his health may be a bone marrow transplant he received as treatment for leukemia. The donor had a gene mutation, dating back to the bubonic plague, that makes some people immune to HIV.

Brown was diagnosed with HIV in Berlin in 1995 where he lived openly as an HIV-positive gay man.

“I didn’t really want to change my plans, so I didn’t,” he said.

Medication helped, but in 2006, he began to suffer from fatigue and was diagnosed with leukemia. Then he met the doctor who would change his life: Dr. Gero Huetter.

Dr. Huetter first treated Brown with chemotherapy while Brown battled pneumonia and another serious infection. Huetter asked the German blood bank to look for possible stem cell donors.

With 267 possible donors, Heutter decided to try something new: He asked for a match carrying a specific genetic mutation which makes one in 100 northern Europeans immune to HIV. Brown is heterogeneous for this gene, meaning one of his parents has it.

“If it works, that means you will probably never have to deal with HIV again,” Brown remembers Huetter telling him.

A donor was found, but Brown didn’t want to take the risk of a transplant unless the leukemia returned. It did, and he had the procedure on February 7, 2007.

“I’m usually very positive, but at that point, I was scared,” he said. To prepare for the transplant, he had to go on immune system suppressing drugs. He stopped taking his HIV medication because he and his partner were worried it would affect the transplant.

His HIV viral levels were undetectable by May. He said he knew something had changed when he started to gain muscle mass -- when he had HIV he had wasting syndrome, and was unable to gain muscle or fat.

Since then, he has survived two more battles with leukemia, an air bubble left in his brain during a botched biopsy, and a severe concussion.

“It’s important that it happened because my case proved that HIV can be cured,” he said of the experience.

Brown said getting tested is very important. He also recommended people who are sexually active or use drugs intravenously take PrEP, a medication that prevents people from contracting HIV — a medication he now takes.

“I don’t want to be the only person in the world cured of HIV,” he said, although he said that the drugs to treat HIV have improved.

One woman in the audience said that she has been HIV-positive for 26 years, and asked him where she and others could find hope in his story.

“The hope is if it happened once, it can happen again,” Brown replied. “There are brilliant medical researchers working to find cures for HIV.”

Leonard Amaral of Seven Hills said Brown was invited to speak because many of the patients of Seven Hills are HIV-positive, and he felt that those patients could relate to Brown’s experiences. Brown was invited to Dartmouth by the Seven Hills Behavioral Health, The Greater New Bedford Community Health Center, and The Bridge: A Center for Hope and Healing.