The ‘Berlin Patient’: Demystifying AIDS?

With widespread debate on the causes of Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, Timothy Brown’s recovery sheds new light

Timothy Ray Brown, the ‘Berlin Patient,‘ is completely clear of HIV | Photo: Peter Rigaud

On Apr. 28, 1984, the human immunodeficiency virus was defined as the pathogen responsible for AIDS at a press conference held in Washington D.C. This statement was given by Margaret Heckler, Secretary of Health and Human Services and the man who claimed to have discovered the virus, Dr. Robert Gallo. Heckler announced that a vaccine was expected in the next two years as well as a test capable of identifying the virus that would be developed and made available to the public within the next six months.

The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (DHHS) was already working on a patent for this test, a patent that would earn the department over $100 million per year for decades, of which Gallo would receive a sizeable reward.

Since then, what has been referred to as HIV/AIDS has claimed millions of lives, billions of dollars in research funds, and been called the largest epidemic of our age.

In the 20-plus years following, our understanding of this syndrome and the fight against it has progressed slowly despite the intensive research and massive funding committed – a wager of effort and resources that some considered a fruitless gamble.

In the first decade of the outbreak, more money was spent on the HIV/AIDS crisis than on NASA’s project to reach the moon.

However, in 2007, Timothy Ray Brown, referred to as the ‘Berlin Patient,’ received a rare stem cell transplant treatment to combat myeloid leukemia, a cancer of the immune system. Cancer was the form AIDS had taken with this particular victim. By the end of 2010, Brown was cured of the cancer and no traces of HIV remained in his system.

This development has been seen as a promising and exciting step forward in the fight against AIDS, as well as a pat on the back for stem-cell research. Nonetheless, the medical and scientific communities have urged the public not to celebrate yet. By all means, safe sex should continue to be practiced. The treatment was a rare and difficult one to replicate.

Most important, Brown’s recovery was due to a particular characteristic of the donor’s genetic makeup. The individual whose bone marrow had been used was one of a small percentage of Europeans said to be immune to HIV. Bone marrow is where much of the body’s blood components are produced, including CD4 T-cells. This cell, responsible for the identification of infections, is the specific target of HIV. However, in those individuals considered immune, CD4 T-cells are unaffected when exposed to the virus. Timothy Brown seems to have acquired the donor’s same immunity. Since beginning this treatment, he has discontinued his use of HIV medication and now, three years later, he is completely free of the virus.

Still, the treatment of this one patient is considered unique and not a feasible solution for the global HIV/AIDS problem. It is expensive and dangerous, and finding enough people with this immunity, willing to donate marrow for the millions afflicted worldwide, seems unlikely.

At this time, it is impossible to be certain if this treatment was completely responsible for his recovery. Some believe it had nothing to do with the genetic makeup of the stem-cell donor or even that AIDS, in general, has anything to do with the human immunodeficiency virus.

This belief, sensational and irresponsible as it may seem to those raised on the connection between HIV and AIDS, has been prevalent in some scientific circles for over 25 years. It is a view that its proponents claim has been stifled, largely by organizations like the Center for Disease Control (CDC), the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and DHHS, as well as the medical and pharmaceutical industries.

Controversy over Dr. Gallo’s claim, in fact, arose shortly after its initial announcement in 1984, when he was accused of scientific misconduct. Among other things, his assertion that HIV was responsible for AIDS was publicized ten days before his experimental methods and results were made available for peer review. This gave no one within the scientific community a chance to verify or criticize this claim before it went public. It appeared as if a hypothesis had suddenly, and without sufficient analysis, been pushed to conclusion.

Nevertheless, the U.S. government and medical establishment were fully invested, financially and politically – and the AIDS industry was born.

Gallo’s results, published in Science vol. 224, on May 4th, 1984, triggered outrage in the French medical community: the Institute Pasteur. Dr. Luc Montagnier claimed that he had sent a sample of the same virus to Dr. Gallo six months earlier. An international lawsuit was filed against the DHHS for “scientific misconduct” on the grounds that Gallo had pirated Montagnier’s discovery. This issue was resolved diplomatically between U.S. President Ronald Reagan and French Prime Minister Jacques Chirac, with an accord that would ensure the equal division of profits made with the antibody test kits used to detect the virus. The names LAV, as the virus was called in France, and HTLV III, as it was referred to in the U.S., were abandoned for an international equivalent: HIV.

This, however, was not the only issue that arose with the overdue publication of Gallo’s results. Only 44 of the 93 patients tested were found to have HIV, and the DHHS and Gallo became the targets of growing suspicion and criticism. Even if each of the patients tested was in fact infected with HIV, it is important to note that, as with any scientific hypothesis, correlation does not imply causation. This is especially true if the correlation is smaller than 50%.

One of the leading voices in the movement opposing the HIV/AIDS hypothesis is Dr. Peter Duesberg, a renowned virologist with a PhD in chemistry, currently working at the University of California in Berkley. He, and several other dissenters, formed a consortium of skeptics who – for reasons of facilitated comprehension and conciseness – will be referred to as The Group (The Group for the Scientific Reappraisal of the HIV/AIDS Hypothesis). These scientists have put their reputations on the line in order to pose some fundamental questions. While not questioning the existence of AIDS but rather the means through which it is acquired, they say that there is still no hard proof that HIV is responsible for AIDS.

Their mission was summed up in a four-sentence letter submitted to leading scientific magazines in 1991. The note recognized that at the time the data linking HIV to AIDS was not sufficient to constitute proof of the HIV/AIDS hypothesis. It then requested for independent studies to be conducted with the intention of objectively validating or nullifying the HIV/AIDS hypothesis. At the time, all publications refused to publish the letter, an action that suggested collusion, if not conspiracy.

The work of these dissenters, of course, must be subjected to the same scrutiny as those they criticize. There is no room for opinion when dealing with evidence. The Group offers a multitude of possible causative agents for AIDS, none of which, however, have been satisfactorily tested or supported by external peers. This aside, the questions and criticisms raised were and are valid, and although they were raised, they remained unanswered.

In 1990, at the International AIDS Conference held in San Francisco, Dr. Luc Montagnier, who had first isolated the virus, gave a startling announcement. Against what might be considered his own interest, he stated that HIV might be benign. The conventioneers took little notice and continued to discuss new antiretroviral medications.

Skepticism may appear damaging, and possibly a distraction to the search for a cure, but the reasons for dissent are numerous and will be considered in some detail in a subsequent article.

Timothy Brown’s case might reframe the entire dialogue and push the argument in favor of one position.


Part one of a two-part series: In the following issue The Vienna Review hopes to gather testimony from both sides of the debate, as well as from Dr. Gero Hütter, the physician responsible for the cure and his patient Timothy Ray Brown.

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