Thirty years ago from Sunday, the Centers for Disease Control issued the first report on the emerging AIDS epidemic. Now, after years of progress in holding back the disease, there is finally an apparent case of one successful cure.
CBS News correspondent Hank Plante, with San Francisco affiliate KCBS, reports that 45-year-old Timothy Ray Brown, now living in the Bay Area, tested positive for HIV back in 1995, but now has entered the scientific journals as the first man in world history to have his HIV completely eliminated from his body. It's what doctors call a "functional cure."
He was living in Berlin, Germany, in 2007, dealing with HIV and leukemia, when scientists there gave him a bone marrow, stem cell transplant that had astounding results.
"I quit taking my HIV medication on the day that I got the transplant and haven't had to take any since," Brown says, adding that his diseases are effectively gone.
In fact, his only medical problem these days is one involving his speech and motor skills because of neurological damage after the treatment, but that's getting better.
"The Berlin Patient," as Brown is known, received stem cells from a donor who was immune to HIV. In fact, about one percent of Caucasians are immune to HIV. Some say it goes back to the Great Plague; People who survived the plague developed an immunity, and that immunity was passed down to their heirs today.
Brown says being the first man to be cured of HIV makes him very, very happy.
Needless to say, Brown is now being monitored by doctors at San Francisco General Hospital and here at UCSF, where we sought out a medical opinion from one of the most respected AIDS researchers in the world, Dr. Jay Levy, who was one of the co-discoverers of the HIV virus.
"If you're able to take the white cells from someone and manipulate them so they're no longer infectable by HIV, and those white cells become the whole immune system of that individual, you've got essentially what we call a functional cure," Dr. Levy says.
We also sought out a medical opinion from Dr. Paul Volberding, another pioneering AIDS expert, who has studied the disease for all of its 30 years.
"One element of his treatment, and we don't know which, allowed apparently the virus to be purged from his body. So its going to be an interesting, I think, productive area to study," Dr. Volderding says. "He hasn't had any recurrence now for several years I think of the virus, and that hasn't happened before in our experience."
Timothy Brown's radical procedure may not be applicable to many other people with HIV, because of the difficulty in doing stem cell transplants, and finding the right donor. But this one case does open the door to the field of "cure research," which is now gaining more attention.
"I'm cured of HIV," Brown says. "I had HIV, but I don't anymore."
Those are words that so many in the scientific community are now cautiously clinging to.