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HIV Frontlines: The Doctor Who Cured HIV

An Interview With Gero Hütter, M.D.

June 19, 2012

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The Evolution of a Cancer Doctor

How many HIV-positive cancer patients had you treated before you met Timothy?

None.

Was he the first HIV-positive patient that you had interacted with?

No. I've seen many HIV patients, through my students and sometimes my medical training. But most HIV/cancer patients, they are old patients or they are in other departments with specialized HIV treatment. It's uncommon that an HIV patient would come to our department. It's only the case if they have diseases like leukemia or aggressive lymphoma, which cannot be treated by other institutions.

The bulk of your practice and the bulk of your research: Where had that been focused on, up until 2006?

My research focus was on leukemias, on resistance against chemotherapy and stem cell treatment.

Had that always been your passion? Or is that something that developed out of your education?

It has a little bit development, but I started with my scientific area with my doctoral thesis. It was based on resistant phenomena against chemotherapy.

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How much of your clinical and research focus has continued to be on chemotherapy resistance since news of Timothy Brown broke?

Now I'm not working clinically anymore. I changed my position to an institution which specially is for collecting and producing stem cell products or other blood-derived products. This is not clinical work. A great part of my work is now research.

Is it research on how stem cells can be used to treat all diseases, or does it focus specifically on HIV?

It's for other diseases. But part of this research project is how to use it in the case of HIV, yes.

What kind of research have you been able to do?

We have focused on the molecular things which are associated with the CCR5 deletion. Because not everything is quite clear about this deletion -- why some effects are also measurable in the transplantation setting. We know that people who have this deletion, the CCR5 deletion, they have better survival if they receive kidney grafts, after kidney transplantation. Normally, transplantation of the kidney has a survival rate of 5 to 10 years. People who have this mutation, their kidney will not be rejected.

So CCR5 deletion is part of this effect in nature. We have other immune system phenomena which have not really described what's behind this phenomenon.

Where is your research focused right now?

Our stem cell unit is focused on treating this population of hematopoietic stem cells for hematological patients. But we have also done research on mesenchymal stem cells, which can be used for regenerative medicine. This whole stem cell area is covered from our institution.

Is regenerative medicine the idea that, if you lose a finger, it can grow back the finger? Or is that a little far-fetched?

I think this is not going to be in the next few decades. It probably is not possible. But you can replace part of tissues if you have injuries, or loss of some special tissues. Or you can rebuild a heart muscle, with mesenchymal stem cells. These cover small areas of possibility; it's very hard to rebuild whole organs, or limbs. This is science fiction, I think.

But if you're an HIV/HCV-coinfected person, and you're cirrhotic, is there a potential that down the road this kind of research can lead to some liver regeneration?

Probably. I don't know -- I wouldn't exclude this possibility.

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