Timothy Ray Brown, who became the first HIV patient to be cured of the infection, died September 29 of leukemia—the very disease that led to the fortuitous eradication of the virus from his body. He was 54.
Until he disclosed his identity, Brown was known as the Berlin patient, whose HIV infection was eliminated in 2007 after undergoing a stem cell transplant to treat acute myeloid leukemia. The bone marrow donor was selected to have a naturally occurring genetic variant that blocked HIV from entering cells. The treatment worked—both for his cancer, and his viral infection.
“Timothy symbolized that it is possible, under special circumstances” to cure HIV, Gero Hütter, the doctor who performed the stem cell transplant, tells the Associated Press.
Until 2016, Brown remained the only person in the world to have been cured of AIDS using this approach and his unique experience motivated him to advocate for AIDS research. As he told The Scientist in 2015, “I didn’t want to be the only one in my club.”
Brown was born in 1966 and grew up in Seattle. He was living in Berlin when he received the diagnosis of leukemia and sought treatment from Hütter. The doctor had previously read about individuals with variants in the CCR5 gene, which codes for a receptor on cell surfaces, that gives them natural immunity to HIV. Upon finding out that Brown was HIV-positive, Hütter decided to look for a bone marrow donor who might have this variant. As Hütter explained to The Scientist in 2015, he screened dozens of donors until he found one with the so-called delta32 mutation.
Within months of the transplant, the virus was gone from Brown’s cells, although his recovery was difficult and he required a second transplant to treat the leukemia.
In 2012, Brown and activist Dave Purdy started the Cure for AIDS Coalition to raise awareness of HIV research. According to a Facebook post by Brown’s partner, Tim Hoeffgen, “Tim committed his life’s work to telling his story about his HIV cure and became an ambassador of hope. Tim also gave numerous blood and tissue samples to researchers after his cure.”
The invasiveness of the bone marrow transplant precludes it from being applied more widely to HIV patients, but the insights gained from Brown’s successful cure have inspired further work on CCR5. For instance, in 2017, researchers used CRISPR to disrupt the gene in human hematopoietic stem cells and demonstrated that these cells could ward off HIV infection in mice transplanted with them. More recently, and controversially, the gene was a target of CRISPR-based editing in human embryos to make them resistant to HIV.
Brown never again tested positive for HIV. His leukemia, however, relapsed five months ago.
“Timothy was a champion and advocate for keeping an HIV cure on the political and scientific agenda,” Sharon Lewin, the director of the Doherty Institute in Melbourne, Australia, tells the BBC. “It is the hope of the scientific community that one day we can honour his legacy with a safe, cost-effective and widely accessible strategy to achieve HIV remission and cure using gene editing or techniques that boost immune control.”