Something wonderfully unexpected happened back in 2008. Timothy Ray Brown, an American living in Germany at the time, came in for treatment of HIV-related leukemia. So, he underwent an experimental operation in which he received stem cells from a donor who was among the 1 percent of Caucasians who are immune to HIV. Not only was his leukemia cured, but so apparently was his HIV. Brown became celebrated as the "Berlin patient"--the first person ever to be completely cured of infection from the AIDS virus. Now, to follow up on this research, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, has been given a $20 million, five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health to lead an effort to replicate the 2008 achievement.
It will not be easy. As the Seattle Weekly reports, the procedure used on Brown is potentially fatal and hard to replicate. What they are hoping to do is find a way to get rid of a protein called CCR5, which acts as a kind of "door" that allows HIV to enter cells. Brown's donor had a mutation that shut the CCR5 door. That is what the Hutchinson Center and other other groups are trying to replicate. They want to take a patient's own cells and change them so they have the mutation.
"What we really have are all the pieces to the puzzle, and the trick now is putting a very large number of pieces together to make this cure for HIV work," Hutchinson researcher Keith Jerome tells Seattle Weekly.
"HIV has been an incurable, lifelong infection that at best sentences people to a lifetime of complex drug therapies," Jerome said in a news release. "Now the research field is shifting to address the possibility of a cure. No one would have talked about this approach five years ago."
Also participating in the research, Xconomy reports, are Sangamo Biosciences of Richmond, CA, University of Washington, Beckman Research Institute at City of Hope in Duarte, CA, and Seattle Children's Hospital.