By Kambiz Shekdar, Ph.D.
Timothy Ray Brown was reported as the first person cured of AIDS. His case provided clinical proof that AIDS can indeed be cured and gives people living with HIV/AIDS hope. For many researchers like myself, Timothy sparked our imaginations in our search for a global cure.
The first time I met Timothy was for dinner at Lusardi’s restaurant on the Upper East Side. He had just flown in hours earlier as one of the two special guests at a symposium we had co-organized. He was very anxious about his trip proceeding smoothly. He was not familiar with New York City, and a prior trip did not go well. He had to take care because of his delicate health. He was so anxious that I became anxious too. After all, Timothy was no ordinary man. In the fight against AIDS, Timothy was our messiah.
Thankfully, Timothy’s trip was problem-free and he arrived to dinner unscathed and unharmed. We were led to our table in a corner of the back dining room of the Italian restaurant. This was at a time in the New York City before social-distancing. There were few fine-dining establishments where you had enough space and distance from fellow diners that you could listen to each other talk and hear what was said. Lusardi’s was one of these places and I wanted to hear every word Timothy had to say.
Before our bodies even fell fully into our seats, Timothy began to apologize. He was quite nervous and worried as he spoke, more anxious than he had been about his trip. He had a stalker of sorts, he said. He feared his stalker might have heard about our symposium and reached out perhaps. He was worried that his stalker had been disruptive.
When Timothy’s case was first reported in 2007, he was only referred to anonymously, as the “Berlin Patient.” Berlin is where this American man was cured. But Timothy did not want to be anonymous; he wanted to give hope to everyone. Everyone. To all those who wanted to get a glimpse of him—to the many incredulous people who wanted to meet him, greet him, touch him, shake his hand, hold him and hug him, share their stories with him, cry with him, and even to those who proved to want to stalk him.
Timothy was the right person, at the right time, and at the right place to be cured of AIDS. He allowed his body to be used like a laboratory where he was a partner in curing AIDS along with his physician, Dr. Gero Hutter, who assembled the many disparate elements, each of which became known to all but none of which were synthesized into a coherent cure by anyone before. Timothy gave his body, his blood and tissue samples, his person, personal space, and his voice to cure AIDS.
For the entire rest of our first evening together, Timothy spoke about how he was infected, how he was cured, and how he was determined to help researchers advance science such that more broadly available forms of the stem cell therapy that cured him could be made available to all those who would want it. Timothy’s dream was that he would not be the only person on earth cured of AIDS. This dream came true when the “London Patient” was reported as the second person cured of AIDS in 2019.
Timothy’s vision goes beyond a cure for one person in whatever city he or she may be named after because that is where they were cured. For Timothy, and for researchers like myself, these initial successes are just the beginning. Timothy’s vision gave us back our own vision: a future free from AIDS.
Rockefeller University alumnus and biotech inventor Kambiz Shekdar, Ph.D., is the founder and president of Research Foundation to Cure AIDS. Follow RFTCA on Instagram @RFTcureaids.