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In the entire world, there is only one patient known to have been cured of an HIV infection. Now, scientists studying HIV and AIDS say they may have found traces of the virus in his body. As NPR's Richard Knox reports, that doesn't mean this famous patient is not cured. But it raises a question of just what sort of cure he has.
RICHARD KNOX, BYLINE: For the past several years, he's been known among AIDS researchers as the Berlin patient. That's because he had two bone marrow transplants in Berlin to treat leukemia - a blood cancer apparently unrelated to his HIV infection.
The second transplant, in 2008, not only cured his leukemia, but it allowed him to throw away the antiviral drugs that were keeping his HIV in check. That's because the bone marrow came from a donor who has a genetic mutation. It prevents HIV from entering immune cells.
Scientists have been intensely studying the Berlin patient, whose name is Timothy Ray Brown, to understand his cure. Last week at a meeting in Spain, they reported that after combing through 9 billion of Brown's cells, they found a few fragments of HIV in cells from his intestine and blood plasma. They found no whole viruses capable of multiplying, and there's no reason to expect that Brown's HIV is going to come back.
Some scientists think the findings aren't even real; that the viral fragments were laboratory contaminants. But the report is raising scientific questions. It suggests it will be hard for scientists to tell if other patients are cured of HIV in experiments being planned now.
Scientists investigating Brown remain convinced that he's well and truly cured, even if some HIV debris is hanging around in his system. Dr. Diane Havlir says she has no doubt that Brown is cured. She's chief of HIV/AIDS at the University of California, San Francisco. She wasn't involved in the new research.
DR. DIANE HAVLIR: The Berlin patient - the patient right now that we know has been cured of HIV - is truly one of the most exciting and inspirational developments in HIV since the beginning of the epidemic.
KNOX: Havlir says Brown's case has touched off a boom in research on finding a cure for HIV. Brown himself is worried that people will conclude he's not really cured.
TIMOTHY RAY BROWN: I've been told by many people that I give them hope. And that's what I want to do. I want to be able to continue spreading my message without having conflicts of people who are misinterpreting the truth.
KNOX: Someday, he hopes he won't be the only patient in the world who's been cured of HIV.
Richard Knox, NPR News, San Francisco.