Tuesday 10 December 2013

The HIV Defenders

Following the previous article on HIV Seekers and Hunters we turn our attention today to people who are working to stop HIV from spreading. That work can take several forms. Some people develop drugs and treatments. Some people work with HIV/AIDS prevention programmes. And some are themselves HIV+ who pass on their knowledge and experience to others. All of them are working to improve the defence against HIV and AIDS.

The names of HIV Defenders is endless. The people I mention today represent a small cross-section of the work being carried out, and I’ll begin with the area in which I was myself involved until recently – safe-sex education.

I volunteered for a gay men’s safe-sex health programme in Nottingham from 1999. We produced and distributed free condom packs around the city (my mother knew I volunteered for a local health charity, I didn’t have the nerve to tell her exactly what I did!). Many thousands of similar projects exist around the world. Choosing which to mention was difficult. So I stuck a pin in a map. It landed near Austin, Texas, USA.

The AIDS Service of Austin (ASA) began in 1986 as the Austin AIDS Project. It developed from a project founded 3 years earlier by Austin resident Paul Clover. Two members of ASA included a man brought up in a travelling rodeo who became the first openly gay member of the Texas House of Representatives, Glen Maxey, and a “Rubber Fairy” who won a silver medal in bodybuilding at the 1998 Gay Games. Clifford Ueltschey.

The Rubber Fairies were a group who produced and distributed free condoms and safe-sex education. Clifford’s bubbly personality would have been an asset to any group. His friends and ASA colleagues all mention his joy of life, even after he was diagnosed with HIV. Clifford took control of his own health and started bodybuilding. He competed at the Gay Games twice, first in 1994 and then in 1998, when he won his silver medal in the lightweight division. As his obituary in the “Austin American-Statesman” says, “His greatest contribution might have been the lives he touched by simply being himself”. Clifford died in 2000.

ASA member Glen Maxey came to public attention in 1986 when he challenged the Texas Commissioner of Health’s proposal to quarantine suspected HIV/AIDS patients. Glen gathered together a team of experts to testify against the proposal before the legislative hearing. During this successful challenge to the Commissioner of Health Glen Maxey was outed by the media. From then on Glen became more involved in legislative matters and was elected to the Texas House of Representatives in 1991. He continued to support HIV/AIDS issues in office. He left office in 2003.

Of course the same-sex message was ineffective for the thousands of early AIDS victims. Their only defence against HIV was drugs and medication. Many drugs have been developed over the years, but perhaps the most well-known and significant was one of the earliest. In one of those twists of history it was a drug that had been around for decades but had been consigned to the back of a laboratory shelf because it had no useful purpose. That drug was azidothymidine, or AZT.

AZT was a drug first synthesised by Professor Jerome Horwitz at what is now the Barbara Ann Karmanos Cancer Institute in Detroit, USA. Horwitz was one of the first scientists who tried to create new drugs which stopped cancer cells replicating rather than look at existing drugs to see how they affect cancer cells, which was the usual practice. In 1964 Horwitz developed AZT which he hoped would interfere with cancer’s DNA. Instead it proved to be virtually useless and was shelved. Every now and again Horwitz would offer AZT to researchers into other diseases, and it wasn’t until 1985 that it was screened for HIV treatment. And bingo! When HIV replicates it hijacks human DNA to do so. AZT tricks the HIV by adding a chemical which blocks the replication.

AZT became one of the biggest HIV drugs. It had some side effects, but it provided hope. Horwitz didn’t receive a penny for developing AZT because the drug was patented by a big chemical company. However, they made it clear who was responsible for it’s creation. For a while Prof. Horwitz became a science celebrity, enjoying his “15 minutes of fame”. But who remembers him as a pioneer of HIV/AIDS treatment today? Prof. Horwitz died last year at the age of 93.

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