You may not know Timothy Ray Brown and Christian Hahn, but you should. When HIV is finally eradicated, they will be among the patients whose unique circumstances and strength of will helped to rid humanity of this deadly scourge that still infects at least 50,000 Americans each year. Brown, an American who received a stem cell transplant of HIV-resistant cells, and Hahn, a German who received early therapy and an experimental cancer drug, are known as the Berlin patients and both were cured of HIV. In Cured: How The Berlin Patients Defeated HIV And Forever Changed Medical Science, Nathalia Holt, a research scientist specializing in the biology of the disease unpacks the story of how these two men, their courageous doctors and a cast of medical establishment characters have transformed the ongoing work to cure HIV.
Deeply researched and compassionately written, the book tells a tale that very few people outside of the HIV community even know about. “These two men and their stories have influenced the clinical trials we have today and some of these really exciting patients and results that we’ve had,” says Holt, who has trained at Harvard and the University of Southern California. She began the extensive research and interviewing process for Cured back in 2010.
Holt’s book dives into all the factors—legal, monetary, logistical and political—that influence whether an experimental treatment is given and when larger-scale drug trials are offered. She writes that funding and the inherent riskiness of large-scale drug trials for gene therapy and eradication therapy are obstacles for this type of research. “The nice thing about these stories is that they kind of tell us that this can work, and they give a lot of promise that way,” said Holt.
One of the more disturbing moments in the book is when Holt visits Brown, who spent a decade living in Germany, which subsidized his care because of his condition, at his apartment in a rundown part of San Francisco. Although he’s received a huge amount of media attention and spoken at international HIV conferences (often without receiving a fee), Brown has been unable to find work and is living in a tiny, rat-infested apartment. “I was shocked when I went into Timothy’s apartment in San Francisco. The living conditions are horrible,” Holt says. “There were bed bugs and rats and the whole place was incredibly small.”
Brown’s living condition is the result of a range of factors, but one considerable cause is stigma. Despite three decades of research, prevention and education, stigma is one of the weightiest issues facing people living with HIV. Whether at the level of research institutions or on the streets of our cities and towns, we must learn to talk openly and honestly about this disease in all its complexity.
“It is still seen as a lesser disease. I find that when I’m talking to people sometimes I hear, ‘Well why do we even need to cure HIV? We have medicine that lets people live for a long time with the disease.’ People really question even the need to cure the disease,” explains Holt, whose work has led to developments in the field of HIV gene therapy. “It’s seen as a disease that’s somehow lesser than other manageable diseases that we pursue cures and research for. I think that that is probably one of the obstacles that we talk about the least.”
Although Holt can’t predict exactly when HIV will be cured, she is optimistic about the work that she and other scientists like her a
re doing. “The studies that I talk about in the book—the gene therapy trials we have, the early therapy trials, and the eradication trials that we have—they’re already producing results that are very promising,” says Holt. “Already we’re starting to see some good news.”