December 31, 2010
I believe in miracles. I believe that miracles come in two forms: those seemingly impossible happenings that can not be explained because the science has yet to be developed to explain them and those truly mysterious events that defy science, logic, rational thought and, sometimes, even hope.
When I first saw the headlines that a man called the Berlin patient, Timothy Ray Brown, had been cured of HIV, I believed the headline. Frankly, any credible news publication that would print that headline would have made sure that there was little to no doubt about the veracity of the claim. So, I believed the headline. What I didn't know was whether this was miracle type one or miracle type two.
After reading the article, which outlined a bit about Timothy's story, how he was HIV positive and had developed leukemia, which had been treated with a bone marrow stem cell transplant -- with a little twist in that the stem cells were taken from a donor that had a genetic abnormality in which the CD5 receptor cells (the cells that HIV uses to invade white blood cells) were missing -- and now he was seemingly cured of HIV. Immediately, I questioned whether or not the doctors had biopsied some of the places that HIV likes to hide out (the brain, lymph areas, etc.) where it is not detectable by regular blood test only to read in a further article that the Berlin patient had developed a neurological condition which required a brain biopsy. The biopsy confirmed that HIV was also absent from his brain and spinal fluids. After reading about the biopsy, I was convinced that I'd lived to see a miracle occur that I hadn't allowed myself to dream about.
The best part of the miracle is that it is absolutely explainable by science. While I know and have seen the hand of God reach out and touch the world creating tremendous and powerful healings, the Big Guy is hard to reach, quite often booked for years, and sometimes when he returns your call, the news isn't the news you wanted to hear. So, I offered up a little prayer of thanks -- mostly because when a miracle can be explained by science it makes it easier for other folks to become miracle workers.
There are a group of researchers that are now working to try and find out exactly how to repeat this miracle. The fact remains that until this treatment is repeated successfully, it is still firmly in the "mysterious act of God" column on the miracle tracking chart. And even if the procedure is repeated successfully using donor stem cells, the cure will be extremely expensive and will wholly rely on finding other rare donors with the same CD5 genetic mutation that also happen to have a matching bone marrow donor type to the HIV positive person in need (please see the above paragraph about the likelihood of Type One miracles).
Frankly, I watched a family member that I loved dearly, my cousin Jim, go through chemotherapy and an experimental stem cell treatment for a rare type of leukemia. The chemotherapy ate at his body and his spirit, and though he fought and fought hard, he lost his battle. The pain that he had to endure during his fight was heartbreaking. A cure that demands that type of pain as its cost is one that may be more than many people are ready or able to face.
Researchers are also looking at developing gene therapies that would replace the need for donor stem cells. In 2009, a group of doctors were awarded a research grant to look at ways to substitute CD5 deficient stem cells as an alternative to the process that the Berlin patient underwent. It could be years before a successful and cost-effective gene therapy treatment is developed.
In the end, I am so very happy for Timothy Ray Brown. I am excited for what this cure means for the HIV positive community. I sincerely hope that the doctor's that developed this treatment are on the short list for next year's Nobel Prize in Physics and Medicine. But, for now, I am keeping this one-time, isolated event in the miracles column. All signs are pointing to a shift of this miracle from the Hand of God type to the scientific discovery type, but there are still too many "what ifs" standing between Timothy Ray Brown and a cheap and effective cure that, for example, will be easily available to people living and dying from AIDS in Sub-Saharan Africa for me to recommend that the good people at TheBody.com start looking for new jobs in the post-AIDS era.
But, regardless of the caveats, this is a hell of a great way to ring in 2011. Perhaps by the end of the year, the miracle will become scientific fact, and next year, I will have many good friends at the TheBody.com sending out their resumes and looking for new jobs.