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Seattle man cured of AIDS, aka ‘Berlin patient,’ steps into limelight

Timothy Brown, Berlin patient, at press conference during AIDS 2012
Timothy Brown, Berlin patient, at press conference during AIDS 2012
Tom Paulson

WASHINGTON, DC – The only person on the planet to have ever been cured of AIDS, former Seattle resident Timothy Ray Brown, has become sort of a poster boy of the International AIDS Conference.

Scientists have been emboldened by Brown’s case enough to be talking about the possibility of curing AIDS — once only a call heard by activists. The big AIDS confab this year is full of a lot of such talk, of big ambitions and ideas, but there’s nothing perhaps more ambitious than a cure.

“I’ve decided to become more public to dedicate my life, my story, to the search for a cure,” Brown said. “I want to just be the first of many people to be cured of AIDS.”

Brown, 46, once known only as the “Berlin Patient,” was cured of HIV infection by virtue of receiving a bone marrow transplant for leukemia in 2007.

The donor immune cells he received while living in Germany happened to contain two genetic mutations that block the AIDS virus from entering cells, thus ending HIV’s ability to do what it needs to do to survive.

“If it wasn’t for my doctor in Berlin who took a chance on an alternative therapy, I wouldn’t be standing here today,” Brown said. What he meant is that his physicians in Germany were willing to try something few American doctors would even consider — tweak an already risky and often very difficult procedure to make it a double whammy that attacks both cancer and AIDS.

“I wouldn’t wish what I went through on my worst enemy,” Brown said. He had to get the transplant re-done when the cancer came back and still seems a bit ravaged by the experience, having some difficulty walking and speaking.

Brown may soon move back to Seattle. Here’s a video interview I did with him in between all the TV crews from CNN, NBC, ABC, Al Jazeera and the like.

In 2009, when his doctors realized he had cleared the AIDS virus from his body, they wrote up a report and he became the world famous Berlin patient. Years later, his identity was revealed when one of his physicians slipped up and named him. But as his website explains, he remained pretty low-profile — until now.

Despite his daily physical struggles, not to mention the struggle to eke out a living on disability living in San Francisco’s rough Tenderloin District today, he has decided to take on a new cause. The press conference today, held off-site from AIDS 2012, was intended to promote the Timothy Brown Foundation.

“It is the only foundation solely dedicated to seeking a cure for AIDS,” Brown said. For now, he said, it will be run through the World AIDS Institute, another fairly new (and largely unknown, to me anyway) non-profit organization whose co-founders David Purdy and Chad Johnson arranged the press conference.

Given the tight funding for research right now and the fact that many other bigger, established organizations (like say, the National Institutes of Health) appear to have jumped on the cure bandwagon, Brown’s new venture likely has its work cut out for it.

Sounds like a long shot. But then, so does curing AIDS.




About Author

Tom Paulson

Tom Paulson is founder and lead journalist at Humanosphere. Prior to operating this online news site, he reported on science,  medicine, health policy, aid and development for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Contact him at tom[at] or follow him on Twitter @tompaulson.