Monday, July 18, 2011

Working Together on HIV/AIDS: Scientists

Photo courtesy of the NIH

This year marks the 30th anniversary of two mysterious outbreaks in America. One was of a form of pneumonia called Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia (PCP) and the second was a skin cancer called Kaposi’s sarcoma. Both diseases were quite rare, especially considering the patients were all young men in their 20's. These outbreaks actually marked the beginning of our awareness of a new disease we now know as AIDS.

Today’s post is the first in a series about HIV/AIDS, including where we were and how far we’ve come in treating this devastating disease. However, I’m not planning on focusing on the science behind HIV/AIDS since others have already done a great job of explaining this.

Instead, I want to talk about the different groups that were involved in the amazing progress we’ve made in our understanding and treatments. In just 30 years, HIV/AIDS has gone from a death sentence to a manageable chronic disease. Who made that possible?

The first answer that probably comes to mind is scientists and physicians who had to figure out what caused the symptoms they were seeing in clinics and how the disease was spreading. This was a daunting challenge, but with the support of the US government as well as governments around the world, they identified the Human Immunodeficiency Virus and figured out how it was transmitted.

Almost two decades before the emergence of HIV/AIDS, scientists had the idea that cancers might be caused by a special type of virus called a retrovirus. They developed a drug against retroviruses in the hopes that is would cure these cancers. Unfortunately it didn’t work. But, HIV is a retrovirus, so they were able to revisit their old drug. The drug, AZT, appeared to slow the progression from HIV infection to AIDS and represented the first major breakthrough for infected individuals. Not bad for a failed experiment!

Since then, science has produced several other drugs to treat HIV/AIDS and many people are living long and symptom-free lives as a result. But scientists didn’t work alone. In my next post in this series, I’ll discuss the crucial role advocacy groups played in fighting this epidemic.

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