A few days back, Robert Gallo, head of the Institute of Human Virology gave a rather interesting talk here. Gallo is one of the early pioneers in the study of human viruses, and of course, played a major role in the discovery of many human viruses, including HIV. Instead of talking about recent data, Gallo chose to give a broad overview of the history and timelines of research in human virology.
I’m not going to summarize all aspects of the talk, since there are too many little details. But there were a few points that I thought were well worth remembering. Gallo pointed out how people (scientists included) have such short memories. Humans seem to have only a 30 year memory of history. Around 1919, there was a huge influenza pandemic worldwide that killed millions. Yet around 1950, people were saying microbiology (including the study of viruses) was an old field. We “knew” all that we needed to about microbes. People said that again in the late seventies/early eighties, when they said that the new frontier was degenerative diseases. I’ve always thought such statements were terrible and expressed a rare ignorance as well as arrogance. I mean, over 99% of all living organisms (in terms of number of species or total biomass) are microbiological in origin!
Gallo went on to talk about the early years of virology and retroviruses. In the seventies, people confidently scoffed at the suggestions that viruses could cause cancer. Yet today we know that nearly 20% of all cancers are caused by viruses or have a strong viral component to their metastasis. Even more interesting were the ideas on human retroviruses. Many people did not believe that there were retroviruses in humans, while others said they were fringe viruses that couldn’t cause disease. But Gallo and others in the 70’s had laid down a lot of basic science research that enabled the later identification of HIV, and the subsequent rapid characterization of the virus, and showing that these viruses attacked immune cells (the helper T cells) that resulted in a severely compromised immune system.
There was also an interesting section where he talked about current antiretroviral drugs that are successfully being used to treat AIDS patients. Once again, human memory appears to be short. More people are now (correctly) arguing that more money needs to be spent on education and AIDS awareness, as well as making treatment available for AIDS patients. However, they addendum is that there is little need for basic research on AIDS, and the focus should now solely be on making treatment available. Gallo pointed out that it was the basic research done 20-30 years ago, even before human retroviruses were discovered, that enabled research with cultured T cells, as well as helped rapidly characterize the virus. Similarly, the modern drugs that were finally available were built on a mountain of knowledge that came from basic, and not applied, research. It is actually increasingly important to continue to increase spending and resources for basic research, because though the results are not immediately apparent, the rewards 20-30 years down the line are tremendous. Unfortunately, economies and countries seem to be unable to think beyond 5 years ahead, and basic science ends up being collateral damage.
Finally, Gallo came out strongly against a number of people who continue to insist that AIDS is not caused by HIV (though the evidence for it is now so vast and compelling that it’s almost as obvious as gravity). While I’m not going to elaborate the various reasons or ideologies behind people who don’t want to accept this, some of their actions are certainly responsible for the deaths of many, many people in the world. By saying the disease is caused only by “bad” lifestyles, or a combination of diet and lifestyle, and therefore pooh-poohing any treatment or options of vaccines, far too many people have had to suffer for it.
A good talk, and a sobering reminder for a lot of us, on AIDS and its global impact.