Tuesday 3 December 2013

The HIV Seekers and Hunters

Inspired by the 2012 POZ 100 list mentioned on 1st December here is a brief look at some people, lgbt and straight, who have been at the forefront of HIV/AIDS research or involvement in early working groups and commissions – the HIV Seekers and Hunters.

I’ll begin with Dr. Frank Lilly (1930-1995). During the first years of the AIDS epidemic reaction from governments was slow. No-one had experienced anything like it before and politicians didn’t know how to react. Eventually, in the USA where the disease was most prevalent, the Reagan administration set up the Presidential Commission on the HIV Epidemic in 1987. It’s purpose was to gather information from around the country, asses the scale of the disease, come up with possible strategies on how to cope with it, and decide how much money the whole fight against AIDS was likely to cost.

Of the 13 members of the commission the one who attracted the most criticism was Dr. Lilly. He was the only gay person on the commission and was a professor in the genetics department at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York. Many people objected to having a gay man on the commission, and it is said that his inclusion was due to pressure from the President’s wife. The official statements from the White House tried to counter the criticism by reminding people that Dr. Lilly’s expertise in retroviruses similar to HIV was the reason he was included.

When the commission made it’s final deliberations in 1988 Frank Lilly was one of the commission members who called for new anti-discrimination legislation to be introduced into the private sector aimed at protecting people with HIV/AIDS.

While commissions were being established around the world the search for the causes and cures for HIV/AIDS was also growing. One of the first tasks was to discover how and why HIV infects cells. One woman who was instrumental in helping to resolve this never knew how important she would be to medical science – and probably wouldn’t have consented to it.

Henrietta Lacks died of cancer in 1951. Some cells from her tumour was removed during a routine examination (in those bygone days the patient’s consent wasn’t required) and studied. These cells were given the designation HeLa (after Henrietta’s name) and they showed the remarkable ability to keep growing and dividing, the first human cells (albeit cancerous) ever that stayed alive in laboratory conditions. Samples of the HeLa cells were sent around the world and became the basis of modern tissue culture research. Using these cells scientists have made major advances in the treatment of polio, cancer, leukaemia, herpes, Parkinson’s disease, flu, and many other illnesses, and led to the technology which produced the first test tube baby.

In the mid-1980s molecular biologist Richard Axel successfully infected some HeLa cells with HIV, which only shortly beforehand had been identified as the cause of AIDS. Studying this infection Axel was able to produce vital information about how HIV works.

One of the other important discoveries made in the early years was the possible origins of HIV in a similar version found in primates – the simian immuno-deficiency virus, or SIV. One of the HIV Seekers in this field carried out his work only a mile from where I live, at the Queen’s Medical Centre and University of Nottingham.

Dr. Paul Sharp is a genetic genealogist – he traces the ancestry of viruses by looking at their DNA. In 1998 he published his first findings into the origin of HIV. Early research comparing HIV with SIV suggested that they both evolved from an ancestral virus some 200 years ago. Further research by Dr. Sharp into SIV pushed that date back to a million years ago. Once infected the SIV gradually evolved in humans into HIV. Paul’s research continued and other evidence placed the first humans to be infected with SIV lived in the West African countries of Sierra Leone and Guinea. Exactly how those humans became infected will remain a matter of theory.

A lot more research has been done since then by other scientists. Without knowing the origin and evolution of HIV and SIV there would be less understanding of how they operate. Paul Sharp began his researches soon after DNA sequencing became possible. In 2009 a team from the University of North Carolina succeeded in decoding HIV’s entire genome which opened the door a little further into how it works.

The work of the North Carolina team, led by chemistry professor Kevin Weeks, means that we can actually alter parts of the HIV genome to see what effect it has on the virus. HIV’s method of “hacking” into human DNA to duplicate itself could be stopped by producing a genetically modified vaccine.

Many thousands of scientists, doctors and researchers have joined the ranks of the HIV Seekers and Hunters over the decades, and their work in finding treatments, drugs, cures and methods of eliminating HIV will stand out as milestones in the history of medical science. Its just a pity I don’t have room to mention more of them.

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