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Life & Style
Jul 30 2012 9:58AM
Could Timothy Brown be the  first person to be cured of HIV?
Timothy Ray Brown, known as the "Berlin Patient" and the only person to have been cured of AIDS, holds a press conference to announce the launch of the Timothy Ray Brown Foundation at the Westin City Center hotel on July 24, 2012 in Washington, DC. AFP Photo
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Last week Timothy Brown, 46, who claims to have been the first person in history to be cured of HIV after receiving a blood stem cell transplant stepped back in the limelight to reaffirm his belief in stem cell transplants being key in the fight against HIV/Aids.

Brown who allegedly, has been living free of the disease for more than 10 years has sparked ample debate in the medical fraternity with many experts dispelling his claims.

Brief history

Brown had been living in Berlin, Germany during 2007 with both HIV and Leukemia, and chemotherapy treatments were making him so sick he was put into a coma to allow his body to recover.

Doctors then decided to wipe out Brown's immune system with radiation and rebuild it with the bone marrow of a healthy donor.

According to Brown’s oncologist, Gero Huetter, the chosen donor’s marrow carried genetic resistance to HIV.

Twenty months after the procedure, the virus had not reappeared in Brown's body, even though he was no longer taking antiretroviral drugs.

But researchers in California recently found traces of HIV in his tissues. Brown says any remnants of the virus still in his body are dead and can't replicate.

We decided to a get a professional opinion from LoveLife’s Youth Friendly Services: Senior Technical Advisor, Dr Chakanga Banda on the case.

1.  Are there really people who carry a genetic resistance to HIV?

Yes, there are people with genetic resistance to HIV acquisition. This is mainly due to the absence of one or both major receptors on their CD4 cells that allow fusion of the HIV with the CD4 cell. It should be understood though that these people constitute a miniscule portion ( to the point of scarcity!!!!) of the population and they cannot be easily identified without carrying intense and expensive genetic tests. These tests are not easily available, therefore HIV preventive messaging should still apply to all.

2.   Could Timothy Brown really be cured of the disease?

Not likely. The story chronicles diagnosis of HIV done 20 years ago. Was this a substantive diagnosis backed by relevant confirmatory laboratory results????? The story assumes that the “cure” was a result of transmutation of immune and possibly other cell-lines after the bone marrow transplant was done. This is a fallacy in that for this transmutation to occur on such a large scale within an individual’s body, it would mean the newly transplanted graft cells overriding the original DNA coding from both parents, a rare genetic probability in that such has not yet been recorded.

3.  How long would it take for doctors to be able to ‘diagnose’ (lack of better word) a person as cured?

Confirmation of such a cure, if it ever happens, would be almost instantaneous. Such diagnosis only needs two things:

i.   A previously confirmed HIV positive status

ii.   A newly confirmed HIV negative status in the same individual.

*Please note that cases of individuals reverting to a negative status from a previously positive status have been recorded. In all these recorded cases, the cause of this was that the patient’s physical condition was so bad that his/her immune system was so run-down that it could no longer produce the antibodies that are used to detect the body’s reaction to the presence of the HIV.

4.  Could bone marrow transplant be the key to finding the cure?

Highly unlikely:

Have there been any similar cases in SA?

No, such a case has not been recorded in South Africa. - TNA

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