Do and Don’t Get Excited About AIDS ‘Cure’

Reporters and researchers are trumpeting news that a San Francisco man has been “cured” of AIDS. We should greet this story with skepticism—and invigorating hope.

Do and Don't Get Excited About AIDS 'Cure'

Timothy Ray Brown is a medical marvel. The 45-year-old man tested positive for HIV back in 1995 and, as he fought the retrovirus, also found out that he had Leukemia, a disease doctors hoped to fight with a bone-marrow transplant. It worked: the Leukemia disappeared. So too did Brown’s HIV.

“I quit taking my HIV medication the day that I got the transplant and haven’t had to take any since,” said Brown, referred to by medical professionals as “The Berlin Patient.”

“I’m cured of HIV. I had HIV, but I don’t anymore.”

Doctors believe that Brown’s miraculous turnaround may be traced to the marrow that contained an immunity, perhaps one passed down from the days of the Black Plague, when certain people found themselves unaffected by the fatal disease.

If that’s the case, then it’s possible the marrow’s life-saving element can be isolated and eventually mass produced, ending the disease’s reign of terror once and for all.

“If you’re able to take the white cells from someone and manipulate them so they’re no longer infected, or infectable, no longer infectable by HIV, and those white cells become the whole immune system of that individual, you’ve got essentially a functional cure,” said long-time AIDS researcher Dr. Jay Levy from University of California at San Francisco.

Levy and other doctors, however, urge caution, especially since marrow transplants may not work for everyone, and the process itself can be fatal.

“The Berlin Patient is a fascinating story, it’s not one that can be generalized,” insisted another respected HIV/AIDS researcher, Dr. Paul Volberding, also of UCSF.

Volberding did admit, however, that Brown’s progress qualifies as “productive.” And that’s definitely true—for more reason than one.

There was a time when HIV/AIDS was the cause célèbre. The sudden onslaught of such a devastating disease, coupled in part with Ryan White’s brave fight, opened the world’s eyes, spurring celebrities, politicians and much of the public to join in the research battle. As time went on, however, the shock and awe of HIV’s first wave faded away.

The disease became too common place, and the HIV/AIDS activist sphere lost its luster. As a positive friend lamented to me recently, “People don’t care about AIDS.”

As the once-animated movement lost momentum, people seemed to forget about the disease’s prevalence: infection rates among twenty-somethings are again on the rise, according to the CDC.

News of Brown’s “cure” could change all that: while surely we all must remain skeptical, the potential existence of a cure—so long thought a myth—should reinvigorate the public’s interest and imagination in fighting HIV/AIDS, a realm where the possibility of victory has for long seemed impossible.

A development as monumental as Brown marks a turning point, not simply for the medical community, but for us all, and brings some hope to a battleground that once seemed impossibly one-sided. It’s our collective duty, then, to seize this moment and use this hopeful uncertainty to reawaken the struggling HIV/AIDS movement.

Someone like Brown, and the prospect of a day without AIDS, comes along once in a blue moon. Wasting this watershed moment would be a moral and medical failure.