There have been a spate of
developments on the AIDS research front over the past few weeks. The biggest
news item was research purporting to demonstrate conclusively that the
HIV virus was spread from chimpanzees to human beings (hmmm…maybe there
are similarities between humans and non-humans after all.)
The evidence is from a chimpanzee
named Marilyn who died in 1985. According to Dr. Beatrice Hahn, whose
findings were published in Nature, although Marilyn had never been
used in HIV research and had not received human blood products after 1969,
simian immunodeficiency virus was found in Marilyn’s system.
The first known incident
of a human contracting AIDS, a Bantu man who died in 1959 in the Belgian
Congo, occurred in the same area where the particular subspecies of chimpanzee
that Marilyn belonged to resides. There is some speculation, though no
evidence at the moment, that the disease might have passed to humans through
the eating of chimpanzees which does occur in some parts of Africa (personally,
I think there is still far too much that isn’t known about HIV to start
saying this is how AIDS was transmitted to humans).
On a sour note, tests of
a live vaccine antidote for AIDS involving macaques failed when the animals
developed the disease itself. The live vaccine used genetically crippled
versions of the virus, but HIV is so wily that the virus managed to somehow
reconstruct itself and infect the target animals. As Dr. Ruth Ruprecht
of Boston’s Dan-Farber Cancer Institute said, “There is a real
risk of contracting AIDS from the vaccine itself.”
Some AIDS activists are still
pushing the National Institute of Health to approve limited trials of the vaccine in ill patients.
The NIH should approve such trials, but the outlook for this vaccine
is not good.
Finally, Scripps Howard environmental
writer Mitzi Perdue wrote an excellent article, “A different perspective
on AIDS,” on the role of fundamental research which did not address
animal rights specifically but was a good rebuttal of arguments that only
research that provides clear, immediate benefits should be approved. As
Perdue notes, the discovery that AIDS was caused by a virus was in many
ways an accident.
Among the happy coincidences
Perdue mentions is that research and development of techniques involving
viruses, and especially retroviruses, were relatively recent. If AIDS had
hit in the 1960s, the technology simply wouldn’t have been there to identify
it. As Perdue writes,
Dr. Ronald Bosch . . . sees this last point as an important lesson
about medical research. The research we had already done on viruses and
the immune system benefited humanity enormously by enabling us to detect
the AIDS virus as soon as we did. Bosch believes that the current AIDS
research will prove similarly valuable. “Some people argue that the amount
spent is disproportionate to the number who die,” he says, “but much of
it is basic virology and immunology research that may help combat other
diseases such as cancer.”
The bottom line is that medical
research does not follow a simple two or three step process from identifying
a problem to producing a cure. Numerous times over the past few decades
information gleaned from basic research experiments on animals that produced
no immediate benefit for human beings was later the key in understanding
important phenomenon. Any requirement that basic research fulfill some
utilitarian program of immediate beneficial results is simply bad science.
HIV: from chimps to humans. Reuters, February 1, 1999.
Chimp research may help AIDS vaccine development. Elizabeth Cohen, CNN, February 2, 1999.
Expert conclude AIDS virus orginated from chipms. Daniel Q. Haney, Associated Press, January 31, 1999.
‘Live’ AIDS vaccine will not work, study shows. Reuters, February 1, 1999.
A different perspective on AIDS. Mitzi Perdue, Scripps Howard, January 26, 1999.
Modified HIV shows therapeutic promise. The BBC, January 29, 1999.