WORLD AIDS DAY: Sex, Science And A Cure

Kambiz Shekdar | President and founder of the Research Foundation to Cure AIDS

Many people living with HIV/AIDS paint a smile on their face every waking day, grateful just to be alive. But HIV infection of the soul is often deeper than of the blood. It can make those infected — gay, straight, bisexual, men, women, trans, white, people of color, disadvantaged or with resources, as well as their relatives and friends — cry in despair. For, despite what we have been led to believe, HIV/AIDS is not a manageable disease: not the side effects of its treatment, not the persistent stigma of its acronym nor the idea of using drugs as a way to address a deadly infectious disease of global proportions.

So why was AIDS cured for the first time more than 10 years ago yet multiple technologies that hold promise to develop a broadly applicable cure remain sitting on the shelf?

Maybe you didn’t know that in 2007, a creative physician practicing in Berlin took HIV-resistant stem cells from a person immune to the virus (millions of people who have a shortened version of the gene for CCR5, a cellular receptor that HIV latches onto in order to infect cells, are naturally immune to HIV/AIDS) and transplanted those into his patient with AIDS. Lo and behold, the cells grew and gave rise to a new, HIV-resistant immune system. The ‘Berlin Patient’ was cured! Though complications of the original method prevent broader application, researchers are using it as a road map for a repeatable cure. However, the idea of a cure for AIDS has not yet captured the public imagination. The sense of urgency needed to unite critical stakeholders and accelerate the science is still lacking.

Is our reluctance to follow through on these ideas because society has become complacent about HIV/AIDS? Are our capital markets not placing enough pressure on large pharmaceutical companies to invest in a cure? Are the virologists and drug discovery experts who have given us the life-saving medications not making enough room for the next and unrelated generation of cellular engineering and stem cell scientists who are needed now? Or do the angry activists who charged the streets in the 1980s height of the AIDS epidemic fear a cure will loosen the close-knit AIDS community they feel they lead?

Perhaps it’s easier to wish a-pill-a-day-will-make HIV-go-away. According to the Centers for Disease Control, “pre-exposure prophylaxis, or PrEP, is a way for people who do not have HIV but who are at substantial risk of getting it to prevent HIV infection by taking a pill every day.” In some areas, PrEP is being used as a strategy for casual, unprotected sex. While PrEP appears to be working for now, what happens when PrEP-resistant strains develop and rise?

When AIDS was a death sentence, people living with HIV/AIDS made sure the rest of society did not ignore them. Now that it’s possible to live with HIV/AIDS through treatments, where is the outcry for a cure? In the U.S., black and Latino men who have sex with men, women who acquire HIV, persons of trans experience, justice-involved persons and disadvantaged people of color carry a disproportionate burden of HIV/AIDS. These same people often lack access to adequate healthcare and a voice. What many people living with HIV/AIDS from across the racial and economic spectrum with decent healthcare do have in spades, however, is an unshakable and shared sense of secrecy and shame. In many other countries, AIDS is even more devastating and deadly. Without a cure, the best the world can hope for is an equilibrium where the lives of generations upon generations of people everywhere depend on HIV/AIDS medications forever. This is not where our aspirations must end; this is the legacy of conservative, religious, homophobic and racist elements that willfully permitted AIDS to fester far too long instead. With a cure, we can begin a beautiful process of transformation towards greater individual and global health and healing.

Science is no longer limiting the cure for AIDS, but a failure of leadership and a lack of imagination have let us down. Calcified ideas and limited thinking must be replaced and refreshed. Our World AIDS Day moment of silence must be followed by a call for the cure.

Once more, we are all needed to step forward — those of us living with HIV/AIDS who hope for a cure, those of us for whom it may come too late, and all of us affected by HIV/AIDS in any way. We can be agents of hope to inspire society to take up and finish this fight against AIDS (for good).

We cannot fail, for if we do, then the nascent hope for a cure will surely suffocate under an ever thickening blanket of treatment drugs. We must discard the false hope that we can manage AIDS without a cure. Above all, we must begin to raise real hope, awareness and support for a cure.

Kambiz Shekdar is president and founder of the Research Foundation to Cure AIDS. Prior to establishing the RFTCA, Kambiz served as Chief Scientific Officer of Chromocell Corporation, a biotechnology company he co-founded. He obtained his Ph.D. at The Rockefeller University.

The views and opinions expressed in this commentary are those of the author and do not reflect the official position of The Daily Caller.

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