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Stephen Crohn, the HIV Resistant Who Helped Develop a Miracle Drug

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Deepa is a freelance researcher and journalist. She writes and makes documentaries and videos.

The Story of Stephen Crohn

Stephen Crohn was a gay man who lived in Los Angeles with his partner, a gymnast, Jerry Green. After fighting for a long time about the social outlier status of a gay man, Stephen had found happiness in love with Jerry Green. His happiness was, however, short-lived. Green died of AIDS in 1982, a time when scientists had not even realised what this new disease was. In the next 10 years or so, Crohn lost many friends and partners to HIV but somehow remained untouched by the disease. Only in 1996 did a scientist find out why. The scientist was Bill Paxton, who worked at Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Centre, New York. He had been looking into how some gay men stayed immune to the disease. His research involved trying to infect Crohn’s white blood cell samples with HIV in a laboratory. Strangely, the virus was not getting attached to the outer surface of the white blood cells of Crohn as it would usually happen. The inference from this study revealed that Stephen Crohn was a member of the 0.1% group of humans with a genetic mutation that prevents the HIV from attaching to their white blood cells. It took another ten years to develop a drug from this discovery. The anti-retroviral drug, Maraviroc, was a revolution in the treatment of the hitherto hopelessly fatal AIDS disease. The drug saved the lives of millions of people infected with this virus and allowed them to live with the disease to reasonably old age. This drug just imitates the natural mutation that we discussed above so that it can cheat the virus and keep the white blood cells safe.

Stephen Crohn and Jerry Green

Stephen Crohn and Jerry Green

Stephen Crohn: Life and Death

Stephen Crohn was a painter, copy editor, photographer and proofreader. He was the great-nephew of the famous doctor in whose honour, the gastrointestinal tract Crohn’s disease was named so. In 1999, a documentary, Nova, was made based on Stephen’s AIDS survivor story. When in 2013, Stephen Crohn died at the age of 66, his death made headlines not only because he was the hero of modern medicine but equally because he committed suicide. Too many of his friends (more than 70, according to his account) had fallen victim to AIDS. Some of the obituaries that came in newspapers hinted that he might have felt survivor’s guilt. He had done a lot of volunteer work among AIDS patients and was a licensed clinical social worker. It was he who went from one scientist to another asking them to study him to find out why he was immune to AIDS because he knew something was different about him. He could take that step because he came from the family of a great doctor and scientist. Still, the tragedy of losing all his friends to the virus caught up with him at a later point in life and could be the cause of his suicide.

Covid 19 and Stephen Crohn

Stephen Crohn’s legacy is going to live on forever. Also, his story gave scientists an alternative path to follow when fighting infectious diseases and pandemics. Finding the very few resilient individuals became one important key to finding a cure for such diseases. The research on similar lines to finding a cure for Covid 19 began in mid-2020 when Jason Bobe, a geneticist working at the Icahn School of Genetic Science, New York, started looking into some uninfected Covid 19 survivors. They were the sole members of their families who stayed immune while all the others contracted the disease. The genome sequencing of these survivors is underway. The study has already shown that people with O +ve and rhesus negative blood groups have a lower risk level even if they catch the disease. Mayana Zatz, director of the Human Genome Research Centre, University of São Paulo, is also doing similar research with individuals who stayed immune while their partners contracted the disease.

The life of Stephen Crohn is forgotten during these pandemic times. Yet someone might emerge from the wings of unknown medical knowledge and present us with a chance to find the perfect cure for Covid 19, someday.

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The Disease-resistant Patients Exposing Covid-19's Weak Spots, David Cox,

The Man Who Was Immune to AIDS, Jesse Green,

Stephen Crohn Dies at 66; Immune to HIV, But Not Its Tragedy, Elaine Woo, Los Angeles Times

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2022 Deepa

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