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World’s First Patient Cured Of HIV Remains A Tantalizing Exception To The Rule

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Courtesy of Timothy Ray Brown
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Timothy Ray Brown was living in Europe when he became the first, and so far the only, patient cured of HIV.

In 2007, Timothy Ray Brown underwent an experimental bone marrow transplant to treat his life-threatening leukemia. The marrow cells he received were no ordinary cells: They contained a very specific mutation that confers resistance to HIV. Brown, who grew up in Seattle but was living in Europe at the time, had been infected with HIV more than a decade earlier.

The procedure was harrowing, involving multiple rounds of chemotherapy, followed by radiation. He came down with graft vs. host disease and had to have a whole second transplant. But in the end, Timothy Ray Brown became the first person in the world functionally cured of HIV.

The announcement that someone had been cured of this hitherto incurable disease thrilled scientists, patients and activists. But now, about eight years later, Brown remains the only case of a cure.

For scientists, this sort of outlier case is both exciting – it is, after all, proof that a cure is possible – and enormously frustrating. Science depends on reproducibility, and the fact that no one has managed to replicate Brown’s success shows that a broad, practical cure may still be a ways off.

Brown spoke with Gabriel Spitzer for KPLU’s show Sound Effect. Spitzer also talked with virologist Keith Jerome of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington about how science confronts this kind of exception to the rule, and why he thinks Brown’s case still has tremendous value. 

Gabriel Spitzer is the Host and Senior Producer of Sound Effect, KNKX's "weekly tour of ideas inspired by the place we live." Gabriel was previously KNKX's Science and Health Reporter. He joined KNKX after years covering science, health and the environment at WBEZ in Chicago. There, he created the award-winning mini-show, Clever Apes. Having also lived in Alaska and California, Gabriel feels he’s been closing in on Seattle for some time, and has finally landed on the bullseye.