The event, which the AIDS Foundation of Chicago ( AFC ) and Northwestern University's Feinberg School of Medicine coordinated, also highlighted key issues impacting HIV treatment and prevention in the Chicago area.
Brown, who started antiretroviral therapy after his 1995 HIV diagnosis, was told by German doctors in 2006 that he also had acute myeloid leukemia. He'd need a bone marrow transplant to survive. But it took an unfortunate incident of bias in a hospital for him to meet the doctor who would ultimately save his life.
"I was afraid of stigma, because that's a big cause of suicide among people of have HIV, but I didn't feel suicidal at all. I didn't want to deal with people in the hospital judging me," Brown said during his remarks. "My partner overheard nurses saying, 'Be careful of that patient, he's got AIDS' really loud."
When the doctor suggested he go to a university hospital instead, where he'd be less likely to encounter stigma. That's when he was connected with Dr. Gero Hutter, who devised the procedure that's been considered Brown's HIV cure.
Hutter began the process knowing of a genetic mutation carried by roughly one in 100 Northern Europeans, which blocks HIV from getting into their immune cells. After a stem cell transplant and more rounds of radiation, Brown spent several months in the hospital, but the treatment held.
"It's been seven years since the transplant, and seven years since I've had to take HIV medicationand I feel great," he said in an interview.
Event organizers stressed that Brown's testimony offers much-needed hope in the community's efforts to find a cure for HIV.
Richard D'Aquila, director of Northwestern's HIV Translational Research Center, added that he and colleagues heard Brown speak prior to this month's event. "Until Timothy underwent the procedure, everyone thought curing HIV was impossible. He's living proof it can happen and we want to figure out a better way to do it than what he went through."
In a presentation delivered prior to Brown's remarks at the event, D'Aquila highlighted that although the number of new cases of HIV in the U.S. has remained about the same, young gay men in Chicago and other major are impacted most by the rise in HIV infections. That's according to the December 2013 HIV Surveillance Report released by Chicago Department of Public Health.
D'Aquila said that, especially as a parent, he finds the new figures troubling, and how it's being understood will affect efforts to address broader community needs.
"The worry I have is, what going to happen if a 20-year-old starts on these HIV medicines, are they going to start having heart attacks in their 40s and 50s?" D'Aquila said. "A cure could do more than just help people who are already infected. ... We would have a better shot of ending the epidemic because it would slow the spread of the virus from one person to another."
Brown's speech and Q&A was the first part of a two-day event, which included daylong sessions about various methods to reach potential cures for HIV, as well as collaboration between scientific researchers and HIV prevention workers on the ground.
Both AFC and HIV researchers at Feinberg collaborate with a slate of other Chicago organizations that work in the realms of treatment and prevention, including the Chicago Department of Public Health, Brothers Health Collective, Vida/SIDA, Center on Halsted, Chicago House, Howard Brown Health Center, Test Positive Aware Network, University of Illinois-Chicago, University of Chicago and Loyola University Chicago. The organizations worked together to plan the community forum.
AFC President/CEO John Peller said the cross-collaboration will be crucial to securing funds that would help establish Chicago as a research hub for an HIV cure.
"We have a large urban population where we have high HIV rates," he said. "It's not about just putting pills in people's hands. ... Building the political will to end AIDS is also about addressing the other problems that people with HIV, or who are at risk of it, experience in their daily lives."