A new finding is leaving some scientists puzzled over whether Timothy Ray Brown, the "Berlin patient" who was supposedly cured of his HIV after receiving bone marrow transplants in 2007 and 2008, has actually been completely rid of the virus.
Brown initially received the bone marrow stem cell transplants because of non HIV-related leukemia, but the transplants came from a person whose cells were HIV-resistant. After he had received the transplants, Brown's HIV didn't come back and he didn't have to take antiretroviral medication anymore. Scientists considered him cured.
But a presentation at the International Workshop on HIV & Hepatitis Virus last week in Spain suggested that Brown still has traces of HIV genes in his body. But what this means exactly is being interpreted differently among scientists, NPR reported.
HIV researcher Alain Lafeuillade of the General Hospital in France, who was not involved in the new finding, offered his interpretation of the results in a statement:
New data presented at the Sitges workshop by Dr S. Yukl group from San Francisco challenged these results as they showed persistence of low levels of HIV viremia in this patient, and HIV DNA in his rectal cells. These HIV strains were found to be different from those initially present in this patient back in 2006, and different from each other. Although HIV could have evolved and persist over the last 5 years, these data also raise the possibility that the patient has been reinfected.
However, Brown said that he has not been reinfected. "That is not the case," Brown told NPR. "It's very difficult for me to listen to those things and read those things."
Plus, NPR noted that even if pieces of the virus were found in Brown's body, there was no sign they were actually able to replicate, meaning "he may be functionally cured, even if he's not totally free of HIV."
The scientists who conducted the study that identified the traces of HIV said that their findings were not meant to be taken as a definitive evidence that Brown had been -- or not been -- cured, the Science Insider blog reported.
"There are some signals of the virus and we don't know if they are real or contamination, and, at this point, we can't say for sure whether there's been complete eradication of HIV," Steven Yukl, of the University of California, San Francisco, who presented the data, told Science Insider. "The point of the presentation was to raise the question of how do we define a cure and, at this level of detection, how do we know the signal is real?"
For more on the case, click over to NPR and read the full story.
The initial report that Brown was "cured" of HIV was published in the journal Blood.
“I quit taking my HIV medication the day that I got the transplant and haven’t had to take any since,” Brown told CBS San Francisco at the time.
However, doctors told CBS San Francisco when the news came out that the bone marrow stem cell transplant approach would not work for everyone with HIV because of the challenges of stem cell transplantation and finding the right match for a donor.
"This is not prime time to me at all," HIV researcher Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institutes of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, told Fox News at the time. "This is a very unusual situation that has little practical application for a simple reason. This donor not only had to be a good compatible match, but the donor had to have a genetic defect of cells that do not express the receptor that the HIV virus needs to enter the cell."