The "C" Word: From Patient Zero to the Berlin Patient

Around ASF Blog
Volume 1 / Entry 18
July 19, 2012

Hello friends,

Those doing research in the HIV field never used to talk about, or even think about using, the word “cure” in conjunction with their work. For the last 30 years, it was considered something unattainable, non-pursuable and therefore unmentionable. But in a few short days, all eyes will be on the International AIDS Conference convening in Washington, D.C., as they discuss in depth, for the first time, how to end AIDS.

In the first years of our collective experiences with HIV, researchers focused on the alleged “Patient Zero.” As researchers traced the sexual practices of gay men in New York and California, Gaetan Dugas was found to be the center of a network of sexual partners and was therefore dubbed patient zero. This homosexual, French-Canadian flight attendant was actually one of many persons now believed to have spread the virus unknowingly and widely before the disease was identified. It was an expensive, long and time-consuming way to go to wrongly demonize one man in particular and the community to which he belonged in general.

Thankfully, researchers are now focusing their attention on the “Berlin Patient.”

Five years ago, the Berlin Patient, Timothy Ray Brown, received a bone marrow transplant to combat leukemia unrelated to his HIV. The marrow he received was from a donor who, by virtue of a genetic mutation, is immune to HIV. This mutation is present in 1% of Caucasians. Brown was basically given a new immune system that could not be harmed by HIV. Even though some cells in his body still contain HIV genetic material, they are unable to replicate and Brown is now essentially, clinically cured of AIDS.

Brown, as he has done for the last 5 years, continues to make himself available to scientists working to disassemble the intricacies of his recovery so they can be reassembled and used to cure AIDS for everyone. It’s obvious that not everyone can receive a similar bone marrow transplant, but it is hoped that gene therapy might be the answer.

Gene therapy trials, using the CCR5 mutation (the one Timothy Ray Brown’s donor had), are currently underway in California. Researchers are hopeful but still cautious. Most think the cure will be realized through a combination of different approaches that may include gene therapy. More research is needed, but I think it’s time to start using the “C” word and demand a cure.

Thanks for reading!

Marc Montminy
Director of Communications and Public Relations

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