Timothy Ray Brown, the first person to be cured of HIV, died Tuesday of cancer. He was 54 years old.
Brown, widely known as “the Berlin patient”, recovered from HIV when he underwent a bone marrow transplant in 2007 to treat leukemia, which he had separately. The donor had a genetic mutation called “CCR-delta 32” which made him resistant to HIV to the point of near immunity. When Brown received the transplant, that genetic resistance was passed on to him.
The discovery was announced at an AIDS conference in 2008 and was celebrated as a cure. Brown remained anonymous for two years, known only as “the Berlin patient”
He wrote about his decision to abandon anonymity in a 2015 essay published in the medical journal AIDS Research and Human Retroviruses.
“I went from being the ‘Berlin patient’ to using my real name, Timothy Ray Brown,” he wrote. “I didn’t want to be the only person in the world cured of HIV; I wanted other HIV + sufferers to join my club. I want to dedicate my life to supporting research to find a cure or cure for HIV!”
Brown has become famous as a symbol of hope for those facing HIV and AIDS diagnoses. Since he was healed, another person, Adam Castillejo, has been announced to be cured of the virus in 2019.
Brown’s friend Mark S. King, who also lives with HIV, told BuzzFeed News that Brown’s “biggest hope was that he wouldn’t be the only one” and that many more people would join. to him to be healed.
“He didn’t live to see that promise fulfilled,” King said. “But it was immeasurable, the impact it had on the hopes and morale of people living with HIV like me. We projected so much onto Timothy, like, oh my God, maybe one day I might be healed.”
Going public was not an easy decision for Brown, but “he understood the power of becoming a symbol of hope and an advocate for further research,” King said.
“Getting out of his comfort zone to become a symbol for millions of people around the world is no easy task,” King said. “This was a modest man of very humble means who was just trying to stay alive. He never asked for the spotlight, and when he had to step in to give us this symbol of hope, he did so willingly and very kindly.”
Brown died Tuesday of a relapse of leukemia at his home in Palm Springs, California, where he received hospital treatment. His partner, Tim Hoeffgen, was by his side.
King said he last spoke to Brown on the phone about a week and a half before he died.
“As any long-term HIV survivor will tell you, we’ve had a lot of recent phone calls with people,” King said. “What you learn is that it’s not the last phone call that matters, it’s the hundred phone calls before that … and that’s what I choose to remember, the friendship I’ve had with him over the years.”
Brown, born in Seattle, was diagnosed with HIV in 1995 while living in Berlin. He and Hoeffgen met in Henderson, Nevada in 2013 after he made his cure public, Hoeffgen wrote in a Facebook post announcing Brown’s death.
“I was immediately drawn to her smile, her wit, her pretty face and her very sweet nature,” wrote Hoeffgen. “We enjoyed being together all the time, so I asked him to move in with me six months later.”
Brown loved to travel the world, watch the news, go to the movies and “he was a happy and kind soul, but he became irritable if he didn’t get his double espresso in the morning,” Hoeffgen wrote.
“I’m really lucky that we shared a life together, but I’m heartbroken that my hero is gone,” Hoeffgen wrote.
In a statement on Wednesday, the International AIDS Society extended its condolences to Hoeffgen and thanked Brown and his doctor for their contributions to medical research.
“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,” the IAS said.
The treatment that cured Brown and Castillejo’s HIV cases “is not a viable large-scale strategy for a cure, [but does] They represent a critical moment in the search for a cure for HIV, “Sharon Lewin, HIV researcher and president-elect of the IAS, said in the release.
“Timothy has been an advocate and an advocate for keeping a cure for HIV on the political and scientific agenda,” Lewin said. “The hope of the scientific community is that one day we can honor its legacy with a safe, cost-effective strategy to achieve HIV remission and cure using gene editing or techniques that increase immune control.”