Timothy Brown, known as “the Berlin patient,” was the first person in the world known to be cured of HIV infection. He passed away at age 54 at his home in Palm Springs, California on September 29th, 2020.
Brown was diagnosed with HIV in 1995 while working in Berlin, Germany. Later, in 2007, he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia, a blood cancer usually treated with blood marrow transplants. Brown’s physician at the time, Dr. Gero Hütter, wanted to try a transplant using a donor with a rare genetic mutation that gives a natural resistance to HIV, hoping to cure both the leukemia and HIV infection together. After his first transplant, Brown’s HIV infection seemed to be gone, but his leukemia remained. After a second transplant from the same donor, the leukemia went into remission.
In 2019, the leukemia returned and spread to Brown’s brain and spinal cord. Brown’s partner, Tim Hoeffgen, announced in a Facebook post on September 29, “It is with great sadness that I announce that Timothy passed away at 3:10 pm this afternoon surrounded by myself and friends, after a 5 month battle with leukemia.”
Brown had committed his life to telling his story and providing hope for the future of HIV healthcare. He gave blood and tissue samples to researchers, befriended doctors and activists, promoted HIV prevention tools like PrEP and the U=U platform, and spoke at numerous AIDS conferences around the world.
Caring Communities and AIDS Resource worked together to organize a lecture from Brown in 2017, held at Penn State University. Staff had the privilege of attending his talk, “The Personification of Hope,” during which Brown discussed his experiences with his diseases, the impact of his cure on the HIV/AIDS community, and the future of HIV treatment for those hoping for a cure.
While blood transplants of this type will not become a regular treatment option (donors with the specific genetic mutation are rare and transplants are medically risky), researchers have begun looking into gene therapy and different drug combinations to achieve long-term remission for those living with HIV. Two potential patients are believed to have been cured: “the London patient,” who went through a similar transplant to Brown, and another man in Brazil who used a combination of drugs to flush dormant HIV from his body. More research is still necessary in both of these cases.
Professor Adeeba Kamarulzaman, president of the International AIDS Society said this of Brown’s legacy, “We owe Timothy and his doctor, Gero Hütter, a great deal of gratitude for opening the door for scientists to explore the concept that a cure for HIV is possible.”
Caring Communities thanks Timothy Brown for his dedication to HIV research and his bravery in so openly sharing his story not only with us, but with the world. Our condolences go out to his partner, Tim Hoeffgen, and to his friends and family during this time.