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Using 'Berlin Patient,' symposium at Columbia University to talk about cure for HIV

Timothy Ray Brown, known as the "Berlin Patient"

Timothy Ray Brown, known as the "Berlin Patient" and the only person to have been cured of AIDS, holds a press conference to announce the launch of the Timothy Ray Brown Foundation at the Westin City Center hotel on July 24, 2012 in Washington, D.C. Credit: Getty Images / T.J. Kirkpatrick

For years he was known only as the "Berlin Patient," and naysayers refused to believe Timothy Ray Brown was cured of HIV and acute myeloid leukemia with a single bone-marrow transplant.

But not only have tests conducted by the National Institutes of Health proved that Brown is HIV- and cancer-free; an effort gets underway Saturday in Manhattan to broach the possibility of a cure for others with HIV/AIDS.

The Research Foundation to Cure AIDS, based in Manhattan, is sponsoring a two-hour symposium at 3 p.m. in Columbia University's Low Library. The event, open to the public, features two panels of speakers, including the Berlin Patient, Brown.

Cell biologist Kambiz Shekdar, the foundation's director, is calling the symposium the first step toward what he hopes will become a "Manhattan Project" aimed at finally defeating HIV worldwide.

"Eight years ago this person was cured and hardly anyone knew about it," Shekdar said Friday. "At first people didn't want to believe it was possible, but now his case has withstood the test of time. And I think it's time that we start thinking about the possibility of a cure for others."

Brown, 49, told Newsday he was diagnosed as HIV-positive in 1995 and went on antiretroviral therapy, the standard cocktail of treatments designed to hold the infection in check. While not a cure, the therapy is lifelong.

Things changed dramatically for Brown in 2007, when he was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukemia while in Berlin. AML is an extremely serious form of leukemia marked by high mortality.

AML is a disease of the myeloid cell line, which emerges in the bone marrow but morphs into numerous immune system components, including T and B cells, key infection-fighting soldiers. HIV targets T cells.

Brown was evaluated by Dr. Gero Huetter, of Charité Hospital in Berlin, who recommended bone-marrow transplantation and sought a donor with a specific mutation -- delta-32 -- on a T-cell protein dubbed CCR5.

Shekdar said the mutation is seen in a subset of people of Northern European heritage. The mutation, some scientists posit, was passed generation to generation after the Black Plague. Descendants of survivors carry the delta-32 miscue in their genome and numerous studies have demonstrated the cells rebuff HIV.

Huetter wrote in a 2009 edition of the New England Journal of Medicine that he and his team theorized it was possible to correct both diseases in one blow.

Dr. Ruthee-Lu Bayer, a hematologist at North Shore-LIJ's Monter Cancer Center in Lake Success, said Huetter apparently was right.

"In a bone-marrow transplant, we want to grow the bone marrow of the donor in the patient," she said Friday. "And the donor's bone marrow will take over the production of the patient's blood cells, and ultimately, the donor's marrow will take over the patient's immune system."

Bayer said bone marrow contains stem cells, the seeds for various populations of cells in the blood.

Shekdar, meanwhile, said he's not proposing bone-marrow transplants, but a therapy in which a patient's own cells are withdrawn and primed in the lab with those bearing the delta-32 quirk, then infused back into the patient. The principle is similar to the world's first cancer vaccine -- Proscar -- for prostate malignancies.

Brown, who doesn't mind being called the Berlin Patient, now lives in California. He said there initially was disbelief that he was cured. But skepticism didn't trump science: "It has been confirmed by many doctors in Germany and in this country," Brown said.