HIV/AIDS–What’s Preventing the Cure?
Amy Fabian (11 AM Micro) worked for a period of time in a research lab, learning about the pathogenesis of Human Immunodeficiency Virus, and our current ability to protect individuals from infection by this virus. Here is Amy’s story:
A few summers ago I spent some time working in a medical lab at John’s Hopkins Hospital and my primary focus during this time was to learn as much as I could about the pathology of HIV/AIDS. It is a popular area of study for pathologists in Baltimore City because this fatal illness rears its ugly head at a rate that is much more pronounced than the infection rate in my hometown of Hanover, PA. I worked with a Pathologist by the name of Dr. Stephen Houk and when I asked Dr. Houk why we haven’t been able to find a cure yet and how this one virus (HIV/AIDS) has been able to continually evade some of the most brilliant minds in science across the globe—his answer was simple, “It mutates too rapidly, which in turn causes the development of too many different strains of the virus for us to effectively vaccinate against.” I have a problem accepting that answer for several reasons.
First, let’s look at the medical definition of cancer, “A rapid alteration (mutation) to the DNA molecule can disrupt the genes in the body causing the affected cells to lose their restraints on growth and to begin to produce quantities of abnormal cells. The abnormal cells begin to divide uncontrollably and eventually form a new growth known as a “tumor” or neoplasm (Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine).” Cancer is a rapid mutation to the DNA molecule. In the medical profession we see several people who enter into and come out of remission from cancer every single day. In fact, recent studies show that the US has the highest survival rate out of 31 different countries for the following four kinds of cancer—breast, colon, rectum, and prostate. So, science has developed a cure for cancer—a potentially fatal disease that rapidly mutates. Scientists have successfully dealt with mutation factors relating to the cause of cancer in the human body, so why is it seemingly impossible to combat this same issue concerning the pathology of the HIV/AIDS virus?
My second reason for not wanting to accept Dr. Houk’s answer is because when I take into consideration that scientists have been able to all but eradicate the Bubonic Plague from the face of the earth, successfully vaccinate against Polio, and develop an effective anti-serum to Ebola—a virus which is infinitely more virulent than HIV/AIDS will ever be—it makes little sense to me that modern medicine still remains unable to develop at least a vaccination for the HIV/AIDS epidemic. It just does not add up. Let’s use Ebola for example. In terms of viruses, Ebola Hemorrhagic Fever (EHF) makes HIV seem like child’s play. The incubation period for Ebola ranges from 2 to 21 days—with 4 to 6 days being the average—and the fatality rates range from 68% all the way up to 91% in the more under-developed countries. Death usually occurs in the second week of symptoms and is more than likely the result of severe blood loss from associated Ebola symptoms. HIV, on the other hand, has an incubation period of three to six months, possibly longer and the fatality rate will at some point reach 100% because there is no cure—HIV will eventually kill every person it infects. However, an HIV+ person can live 20+ years with the advancements science has been able to make in the area of anti-retroviral medications and other life sustaining treatments. Ebola is virulent enough to kill a large majority of the patients it infects within a 14-day period. Viral virulence that allows 20+ years until death compared to 14 days from onset of symptoms until death is a pretty significant difference. Yet science has been able to develop a passive antibody transfusion obtained from a previous human Ebola survivor that is shown to be effective in the treatment of Ebola in humans. On the subject of mutation, we could safely assume that Ebola mutates as well, simply because it’s a virus and many viruses do mutate during replication. So what I really don’t understand is this: how is it that science has been able to get a grip on something extremely deadly like Ebola, but remain clueless in terms of a vaccine or cure concerning the much less virulent HIV/AIDS virus? Further, since attenuated vaccines inject a portion of a virus into the person receiving the immunization in order to give their body a chance to produce antibodies, will it EVER be possible to even get to medical trials for an HIV/AIDS vaccine due to ethical concerns over injecting a healthy human with any portion of a fatal, non-curable virus?
- McGraw-Hill Concise Dictionary of Modern Medicine—online medical dictionary.
- WebMD.com article: Cancer Survival Rates Vary by Country. By Kathleen Doheny.
- Medical Research Paper Search Engine: http://www.questia.com/ Title of paper—The Ebola Virus and the Challenges to Health Research in Africa. Authored by Daniel Bausch.
- Hard copy book: Ebola, by William T. Close, MD. Published by Ivy Books, June 27, 1995.