(RxWiki News) Timothy Brown's story was a spark of tremendous hope: He had been diagnosed with HIV and then 'cured.' Doctors and scientists believed that the virus disappeared from his body completely.
But new tests have thrown confusion and doubt onto his miraculous recovery.
Brown is the first HIV patient thought to be cured of infection, and for that reason his case has been studied intensely. Now researchers believe that they have discovered traces of HIV still in his system.
"Hope for a cure to HIV remains elusive."
Brown was diagnosed with AIDS in 1995. Years later, he developed acute myeloid leukemia.
Doctors treated the leukemia with a bone marrow transplant, a common procedure for the disease. But there was something special about the bone marrow he received.
The donor had a genetic resistance to HIV. When Brown got the transplant, his doctor was essentially trying to wipe out his old, HIV-infected immune system and replacing it with a healthy one.
After the procedure, Brown stopped taking antiretroviral drugs, his daily treatment for HIV. And the virus never returned.
It appeared that HIV had vanished from his body, undetectable in his cells.
Brown, who had been called “the Berlin patient” in a case study published in the New England Journal of Medicine, became a medical celebrity. His story embodied hope for the millions of people living with HIV/AIDS, who previously had no real hope for a cure.
Brown's procedure would be too costly and unfeasible to replicate on a larger scale. But it was hoped that Brown was living proof that a patient could be considered cured.
Now, scientists are not so sure that “cured” is the appropriate term.
At a scientific conference in Spain, Dr. Steven Yukl, a virologist at the University of California, San Francisco announced that he had found very small traces of HIV in Brown's system.
Researchers have been analyzing cells from different parts of Brown's body, searching for any level of the virus remaining. Four lab studies found nothing. But three research groups think they have detected genetic material from HIV left in cells.
Dr. Alain Lafeuillade of the General Hospital in Toulon, France, a well-known HIV/AIDS researcher, is the most outspoken on the topic. He believes that Brown may have been reinfected and could infect other people.
The findings stir debate over whether they are accurate, or human errors. Some scientists think the positive results might be because the equipment used to track down HIV was contaminated with another strain of the virus – one that did not match the strain Brown had before his transplant.
Dr. Tae-Wook Chun, who was one of the team that found traces of HIV, said that even if the findings are accurate, it may not mean that Brown has been reinfected or that he could infect others.
Regardless of the ongoing debate, Brown is still off HIV treatment, and appears to remain healthy.