An interview with Nathalia Holt, PhD, author of Cured: How the Berlin Patients Defeated HIV and Forever Changed Medical Science
by Alina Oswald
Just shy of a decade ago, the world woke up to the exciting news of the first person being cured of AIDS. His name is Timothy Ray Brown, and he’s the so-called Berlin Patient, an American functionally cured of HIV by given a bone marrow transplant in Berlin, Germany.
But as it turns out, Brown is actually the second Berlin patient receiving a functional cure. With the first one, who chose to remain anonymous, doctors took another approach—that of administering very early and very aggressive anti-HIV therapy. The stories of the two Berlin patients, and that of the discovery of a functional cure for HIV itself come to life in Cured: How the Berlin Patients Defeated HIV and Forever Changed Medical Science, by Nathalia Holt, PhD. Holt is a microbiologist and HIV researcher who has been involved in the final stages of the Berlin patient trials, as she was working on a gene therapy approach to HIV for her PhD thesis at the time.
Part of what makes Cured an unexpected page-turner, especially for lay readers, is that it tells a story about scientific research with the lay audience in mind—that is, through heartfelt personal stories that show that even science and research are not all about numbers and formulas, but also have a human face.
“I really enjoyed writing about the personal stories, especially because they surprised me,” Holt comments, when we catch up by phone. “You don’t really read about too many personal stories about researchers and scientists. These two researchers are just complete underdogs [with] fascinating stories. And then, of course, the patients, themselves…what they’ve gone through is far more than most people are aware of.”
She describes both Berlin patients as incredibly modest, not looking for fame, and only wanting to give back to the HIV community. Holt explains that their memories of the experience are powerful, forever imprinted in their minds. The first Berlin Patient talks about his feeling that the virus was cleansing from his body, while Timothy Ray Brown retells his terrific and terrifying journey of receiving a bone marrow transplant—a procedure that almost killed him—to become functionally cured.
Holt calls the concept of a functional cure “an important concept. In a sterilizing cure,” she explains, “you get rid of every last infected cell from
the body. What these men have is a functional cure. [That means] there is a small amount of HIV that can only be detected through highly sensitive tests, but it’s an amount of virus that we’re able to live with, and that the immune system can control. This is a radical idea, the idea that there’s an amount of virus that you can live with in your body.” And, similar to those who are undetectable, for those who are functionally cured, the chances of transmitting the virus are extremely low.
“It is exciting that we’re approaching it from different angles,” Holt says, talking about the cure. “We have gene-therapy clinical trials based on Timothy’s experience. We’re starting to get some promising data coming from those. And then we have these other approaches happening right now, based on early therapy, a lot of them based on the first Berlin patient, which may work well on people first diagnosed.”
Cured is proof that we need a cure for HIV. “There are so many different excuses,” Holt explains, “[like a cure] is not necessary because of the therapies we have…. I think that HIV is a disease [easily considered by] some groups of people as [undeserving] of the same level of research as other diseases or [of] a cure. I hope the book gets the message that not only can we cure people of HIV, but that the research is very important in looking for ways to cure HIV.”
Find out more about Nathalia Holt and her new book, Cured, at www.nathaliaholt.com.
Alina Oswald is a writer, photographer, and the author of Journeys Through Darkness: A Biography of AIDS. Contact her at www.alinaoswald.com.