Spring 2014

Nathalia Holt

Telling the Story of a Miracle Cure

Nathalia Holt

In 1996 and 2008, two men were famously cured of HIV. Their stories reached millions, inspiring HIV patients around the world and spurring new ways of treating the disease. But years later, what have their stories taught us? And are we any closer to finding a lasting cure?

Award-winning HIV researcher Nathalia Holt (‘02, Biology) answers those questions in her new book, Cured: How the Berlin Patients Defeated HIV and Forever Changed Medical Science.

Holt draws on interviews with patients, doctors and her own experience as a research scientist at the Ragon Institute in Boston to explore the cases of Christian Hahn, who was cured of HIV with early drug therapy and an experimental cancer drug, and Timothy Brown, who was cured with a stem-cell transplant. Both men are still HIV-free.

Brown, the more famous of the two “Berlin patients,” received a transplant to treat leukemia related to his HIV in 2007. In doing so, doctors gave him an entirely new immune system that was resistant to the virus.

Brown’s donor had a unique gene mutation—called CCR5-delta32—that protects a small number of people from HIV. The gene combination responsible for complete immunity is present in about one percent of Caucasians.

“This gene is pretty much the appendix of human proteins,” explains Holt, whose work focuses on the gene. Cured examines what Brown’s story and other recent breakthroughs mean for the future of HIV treatment.

“What’s most fascinating to me from all of this that the ‘Berlin patients’ were cured by physicians who didn’t come from big research labs or clinical trials,” Holt says. “They passionately wanted to help their patients and did something radical that actually worked. Their work has gotten a lot of people talking about a cure and that’s what’s so exciting.”