After surviving cancer, young filmmaker Edgar Tang went in search of the Berlin Patient—the man who survived cancer and was cured of HIV.
Cancer survivor and young filmmaker Edgar Tang travelled the world in search for the ‘Berlin Patient’—the first person ever to be functionally cured of HIV. His journey is now an acclaimed documentary called I Hugged The Berlin Patient, which will premiere on December 1 (World AIDS Day) on MTV LA and Tr3s. We caught up with Edgar to find out about his documentary:
MTV Staying Alive Foundation: So who is the ‘Berlin Patient’ and why is he so special?
Edgar Tang: It’s the stuff of fiction really! You see in 2007, an unknown man in Berlin who had been living with HIV for 11 years was diagnosed with acute myeloid leukaemia, an aggressive blood cancer. While waiting for a bone marrow transplant, his doctor at the time proposed that they use the bone marrow of a person immune to HIV. They found that rare match, and on the day of the transplant, this patient stopped taking his anti-HIV drugs. He survived the high-risk treatment, got cured of both HIV and leukaemia, has not taken anti-HIV drugs ever since, and was named the ‘Berlin Patient’.
MTVSAF: It is a fascinating case!
ET: Indeed. Like most people, I was pleasantly shocked, but also curious—why was the first person cured of HIV not common knowledge yet? As I researched more, I found out that his real name is Timothy Ray Brown, and that his road to recovery was not all peaches and cream.
In battling leukaemia he initially tried chemotherapy, which nearly killed him. He then survived two dangerous bone-marrow transplants, only to fall victim to a botched brain biopsy, which required two brain surgeries, and in recovering from that, he got almost beaten to death in a brutal robbery.
MTVSAF: Was that when you decided to find him?
ET: I’m a cancer survivor myself and was diagnosed with stage 3 lymphoma (also a blood cancer like leukaemia) the same year Timothy Brown underwent his historic transplant. I believe the ‘survivor-to-survivor’ connection fuelled me because all I wanted to do was personally express my admiration to him for staying alive.
MTVSAF: What was the highlight of your mission to find him?
ET: The spontaneity. Timothy Brown may have been the obvious ‘prize’ in my mission but in between, the unplanned nature of my approach—flying from Singapore to Berlin without a real plan or grasp of German—that certainly made every day unpredictable, and it wouldn’t have been documented if not for my old friend Dzul Sungit behind the camera. He incorporated my self-discovery into the journey, so organically two parallel journeys were fused. For us to reach this stage today, where something this spontaneous can be shared with millions, is just mind-blowing.
MTVSAF: Now that you’ve met Brown, how do you feel about the future of the fight against HIV?
ET: The ‘Berlin Patient’ has shown that a cure for HIV is possible, and I Hugged The Berlin Patient celebrates the hope behind it. We are aware of the daunting statistics regarding new HIV infections, but statistics also show that HIV-cure research is the smallest voice amidst the more established fields of HIV prevention and HIV treatment. There’s no denying that prevention and treatment are vital; after all, these methods have saved millions of lives. But we should not give up hope of a cure. That is why we hope to use the film to raise awareness and funds for an HIV cure. We hope viewers, in enjoying our madcap adventure, can pay forward the ‘hug’ and #PassTheCure with us!