Over the last century, brave generations of researchers have conquered polio, measles, tuberculosis and other diseases that once ravaged populations.
We live in an era where cancer is no longer a death sentence, a simple pill can prevent pregnancy, and advanced imaging technology can diagnose anything from broken bones to microscopic tumors.
It’s difficult to dispute the power of modern medicine – a field so advanced that the right amount of funding and brainpower make anything seem achievable.
Almost anything, that is.
More than 30 years after its official discovery, an enigma of enigmas still puzzles those who have dedicated their life’s work to its demise.
Though it has slipped from the headlines, the Human Immunodeficiency Virus – HIV, for short – still lives among us, teasing immunologists with small breakthroughs that deliver more questions than answers.
“It’s humbling,” said biologist David Baltimore, a professor and former president of the California Institute of Technology. “The scientific community is used to solving problems.”
AIDS, the disease caused by HIV, first garnered publicity in 1981 after the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a “Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report” describing infections and weakened immune systems among five gay men in Los Angeles.
That July, the New York Times published an article about a “rare cancer” in 41 homosexual men.
“Initially, it was thought to be a gay man’s disease,” said Baltimore. “People who had a religious view thought it was retribution for violating God’s precepts.”
Medical experts, of course, knew better.
A decade earlier, Baltimore, now 78, laid the foundation for the discovery of HIV.
His work demonstrated how a subset of viruses can reverse the flow of information in cells by violating the central dogma of biology, a framework for how genetic data flows from DNA to RNA.
Baltimore won the 1975 Nobel Prize for showing how these so-called “retroviruses” reverse this process, moving information from RNA back into DNA.
The initial discovery of this reverse transcription, the method by which HIV reproduces itself, arguably saved thousands of lives by expediting the development of early treatment drugs in the late 1980s.
Within a few years, HIV went from a terminal diagnosis to a manageable condition.
“The most important thing has been done. We now have drugs that will stop the symptoms,” said Baltimore, who was awarded the National Medal of Science in 1999. “A person with HIV will generally die of something else – not of AIDS.”
The drugs, however, do not prevent an HIV patient from spreading the virus to others.
Only a true cure – “putting the genie back in the bottle,” as Baltimore calls it – could quash HIV altogether, eradicating the world of a disease that still ravages poorer countries lacking access to antiretroviral drugs.
In 2015, 1.1 million people died from AIDS-related illnesses, according to the World Health Organization.
More than 70 percent of those deaths happened in Africa, home to 15 percent of the world’s population.
By comparison, the Americas accounted for nearly six percent of AIDS-related deaths in 2015.