Timothy Ray Brown, first man cured of HIV, in hospice care

  • by Liz Highleyman, BAR Contributor
  • Tuesday September 22, 2020
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Timothy Ray Brown, shown here at the 2019 Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections. Photo: Liz Highleyman
Timothy Ray Brown, shown here at the 2019 Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections. Photo: Liz Highleyman

Timothy Ray Brown, once known as the Berlin Patient, is in home hospice care due to a recurrence of leukemia, he and his partner, Tim Hoeffgen, have revealed. Brown, a former San Francisco resident who now lives in Palm Springs, was the first person ever cured of HIV, and he remains one of only a handful of people to achieve this feat.

In 2006, Brown was living in Berlin and was on antiretroviral treatment with well-controlled HIV when he was diagnosed with hard-to-treat leukemia, which would ultimately require two bone marrow transplants. His German doctor had the idea to use stem cells from a donor with a rare genetic mutation that blocks HIV from entering cells. He underwent intensive chemotherapy — nearly dying in the process — and the donor stem cells rebuilt a new immune system that was resistant to the virus.

Brown willingly became a guinea pig, undergoing extensive testing over the ensuing years to help researchers learn more about how his HIV was eradicated. Scientists searched for residual virus in his blood, gut tissue, and everywhere else they could manage to look, but they were not able to detect replication-competent HIV anywhere in his body.

Last fall, Brown, now 54, began to experience pain and neurological symptoms, and tests early this year revealed that his cancer had relapsed and spread to his spine and brain, Hoeffgen told the Bay Area Reporter in August. He underwent chemotherapy and radiation, but the side effects proved intolerable.

During the height of the COVID-19 crisis, Brown was hospitalized for seven weeks and forbidden to see any visitors except Hoeffgen, who had to stay with him in the hospital. This summer, Brown decided to stop treatment and entered hospice care at home, where he has received many visits from loved ones, AIDS advocates, and HIV researchers, Hoeffgen said.

"Timothy is not dying from HIV, just to be clear," Hoeffgen told Mark S. King, who broke the news this week in his My Fabulous Disease blog. "HIV has not been found in his bloodstream since he was cured. That's gone. This is from the leukemia. God, I hate cancer."

For the past decade, since he revealed his identity as the Berlin Patient, Brown has been eager to advance the cause of HIV cure research. He has spoken at numerous conferences and been interviewed by journalists worldwide whenever another potential cure is in the news.

"I still hang on to the hope that everyone living with HIV will be cured in my lifetime," Brown told the B.A.R. at a 2017 party to celebrate 10 years of living free of HIV. He had video chats with Adam Castillejo, a London man widely regarded as the second person cured of HIV, who Brown said he regards as "an addition to my family."

Even now, Brown continues to convey the message.

"I have asked him what he wants me to tell people when we make his situation public," Hoeffgen told King. "He said, 'Tell people to keep fighting. Fight for a cure for HIV that works for everyone. I never wanted to be the only one.'"

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