HIV Virus a Force for Good?
Posted on March 29, 2019
I hate the HIV virus. The thing is evil. How else could you identify something that accounted for around 15 million deaths? Even with all the great medication, this evil virus seems to find its way into the dysfunctional cracks in the communities it enters. Racism, discrimination, poverty all open windows of opportunity for it to disproportionately kill those affected by the ills of our society.
Then, a few weeks ago, I watched a 60 Minutes segment on how medical researchers were using the HIV virus to deliver genetic therapy to cure sickle cell amenia. Like many genetic diseases, sickle cell results from a mutation in the DNA. These researchers replaced the part of the HIV virus that leads to HIV infection and AIDS with the patient’s “fixed” DNA correcting the mutation delivered through stem cells to the blood.
Researchers in the story were cautious about the results. However, the segment documented a patient whose body, wracked with pain from sickle cell, fully recovered and began jogging and doing Judo (things unthinkable before the treatment). I feel like this evil virus, which I’ve spent much of my career fighting, gave us another middle finger. We seem to be years if not decades away from a cure, maybe closer to a vaccine. In the meantime, we figured out how to manipulate it to save lives while it still takes and devastates so many.
It is not unforeseeable that we might look back on a virus that killed so many as the vehicle that saved even more lives than it took. As I travel the country to speak at HIV events, I run into segments of the AIDS Memorial Quilt. I always take a moment to think about the people, and those that loved them, whose lives and suffering those pieces of fabric represent. We owe so much of our current understanding of HIV, the medication, and the hope for a cure to those early and contemporary advocates who fought against stigma, misinformation, and hopelessness. I take to heart that those who we’ve lost might also hold a legacy to helping us prevent the deaths of millions because we learned so much about this evil virus that we turned it into a life saving medical treatment.