A 12-year-old African-American boy named Eric Blue had the hopes of the entire global AIDS community riding on his shoulders. Eric lived in Alexandria, La., and loved basketball – a lot.
On April 23, 2013, University of Minnesota physician-scientists performed the first cord blood transplant in the United States in the hopes it would cure not only Eric’s HIV, but also his leukemia, a strain particularly resistant to chemotherapy alone.
The procedure is similar to the one performed on Timothy Ray Brown, “the Berlin Patient,” six years ago. But with Eric, instead of bone marrow stem cells, the doctors used cord blood, known to be effective in curing leukemia. Both Timothy’s and Eric’s donated blood contained a variant of the cell surface protein, CCR5 delta 32.
Present in less than one percent of the population, the CCR5 delta 32 negative mutation stops HIV from entering a patient’s T cells, thereby preventing the destruction of the person’s immune system.
As co-founders of the Timothy Ray Brown Foundation of the World AIDS Institute, Timothy Ray Brown and I shared an inspiring call with the heads of the medical team that performed the cord blood transplant on Eric.
Timothy and I also talked with Eric immediately after his procedure. We all were excited and laughing, especially when Timothy humorously advised Eric not to “lie around in bed as I did.” Instead, Timothy urged Eric, “Get up as soon as you are able and play some basketball.” Eric’s mother was laughing the hardest, obviously showing her approval of Timothy’s sound advice.
In early June, Eric developed a severe complication, called graft-versus-host disease, which occurs when the donor’s immune cells attack various tissues in the recipient’s body. Timothy Ray Brown had the same complication following his transplant. Although Eric initially responded positively, sadly, on Friday, July 5, he lost his battle. I like to dream that all the Fourth of July fireworks celebrated not only our country’s Independence Day but Eric’s bravery, as well.
This from Timothy Ray Brown: “I am deeply saddened because one of our bravest, youngest warriors has just lost his struggle to be cured of HIV and cancer. I had a very strong connection with Eric and spoke with him and his mother immediately following his cord blood transplant. We all knew and he knew the tremendous challenges facing him as he entered this battle with incredible strength and hope well beyond his years. “
And this from Eric’s medical team: “At the time we took Eric’s case, we knew it was going to be a challenge and that success was never a guarantee,” said transplant physician and Masonic Cancer Center researcher Michael Vernaris, M.D. “While the entire team is so very sad for Eric’s family, we also must recognize that we gave him the best chance of beating not one but two life-threatening diseases.”
Timothy went on to add: “From experience, I know that science and medicine can be so tough, seemingly impossible, but with every victory and every defeat we are still moving forward in the global effort to find a cure.”
A team of scientists around the nation is evaluating tissue and blood specimens taken during the course of Eric’s treatment. While not yet conclusive, the results to date are encouraging: All blood specimens, even after the discontinuation of the three HIV anti-retroviral drugs, show an absence of the HIV virus.
And this from the marrow transplant program director John Wagner, M.D., an internationally recognized pioneer in cord blood transplantation at the University of Minnesota: “Eric was an incredibly brave young man. Even when he was sick, Eric told me that one day he and Timothy Brown would stand together as firsts.”
Wagner told me he hopes Eric’s case compels all cord blood banks worldwide to test the cord blood stem cells for CCR5 delta 32, which will increase the likelihood physicians will find more precise matches for their patients. Not only would this increase the availability of such treatments, it also would reduce the risks of transplant procedures.
Timothy’s final thoughts: “I will continue to dedicate my life to making sure we have a viable cure for everyone living with this dreaded disease. I will not let Eric down and I will not let the world down.”