Timothy Ray brown also know as “The Berlin Patient” was born in the US and was diagnosed with HIV in 1995. In the year 2007, he developed a sort of blood cancer – acute myeloid leukaemia.
Mr. Brown received an allogenic hematopoietic stem cell transplantation as a treatment for cancer. It involved replacing his marrow which was responsible for producing the cancerous cells with healthy cells by a transplant. The donor who was naturally resistant to HIV, had a rare mutation in the part of his DNA – the CCR5 gene. The transplant meant that Timothy’s body could rebuild its immune system and he could live without the fear of the virus turning into AIDS. The virus was never detected again in his body, without medication for 12 years. But the leukaemia, returned and spread to his brain and spinal cord, resulting in his death.
What is HIV resistance ?
The Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) latches itself to the CCR5 receptor on the surface of white blood cells. Imagine the virus’s spike as a key and the cell’s receptor as a lock. With the CCR5 delta 32 mutation, the virus is essentially locked out of person’s immune system, providing resistance against it. The mutation is most common among people of Northern European descent.
In the future, this may be the driving force behind gene therapy and vaccines. Using gene editing technology to disable the normal CCR5 gene in embryos and create a generation with HIV immunity.
How close are we to finding a cure ?
In addition to being too expensive, the treatment essentially is for cancer.
Although, the Berlin Patient was cured of the virus, researchers tried for years to replicate the success, but HIV kept returning in subsequent patients. Some worried that Brown’s success was not enough proof that the CCR5 delta 32 mutation was the key to treating HIV, but instead just a coincidence brought on by intense, nearly fatal, radiation.
In March 2019, Adam Castillejo, also called the “London Patient” was cured of HIV. He underwent a similar bone marrow transplant to treat Hodgkin’s Lymphoma. He has been HIV-free without any medication for 18 months now. Castillejo, is one of the few patients who are being observed by a team of researchers.
the London patient’s success is noteworthy because it proves that Brown’s case was not a mere coincidence and it puts the focus back on CCR5.