This genuinely astounded me when I found out about it.
This man here is Timothy Ray Brown. He was diagnosed as HIV positive in 1995 while living in Germany.
As if a diagnosis of HIV wasn’t enough, he also developed another critical illness a few years later – cancer. The type of cancer he had specifically is called leukaemia, which is especially nasty because it affects the bone marrow where white blood cells are made. White blood cells are our body’s police force – they fight disease and help to clean up toxins and other such things, and leukaemia causes them to turn on the body itself: police brutality taken a whole new extreme.
The treatment for leukaemia generally involves a bone marrow transplant, i.e. removing the diseased marrow and replacing it with someone else’s healthy marrow. In Timothy’s case, doctors attempted something particularly ambitious.
Some people are naturally resistant to HIV as they produce a variant of a particular protein called CCR5, which is found in white blood cells. It’s this protein that HIV infects, attaching themselves to it and eventually entering cells through it. About 10% of people of European origin have a variant of this protein that makes it impossible for HIV to attach to using its receptors.
In Timothy’s case, doctors found a person with the CCR5 variant who was also suitable as a donor. (Think about different blood types – the same holds true for white blood cells.)
Rather than a relatively straightforward bone marrow transplant, doctor’s in Timothy’s case attempted to regrow his bone marrow using stem cells provided by the donor in a procedure known as HSCT, or hematopoietic stem cell transplantation.
They did this twice, three years apart, and it meant that Timothy began producing new white blood cells with the HIV-resistant CCR5 variant, effectively curing him of the disease.
Several other patients have undergone similar treatments to Timothy, but he, to date, remains the only person declared HIV-free for a significant period of time. If that doesn’t count as ‘insane’ then I don’t know what is.
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