Over 300 researchers, health care professionals, students and Davis residents gathered at UC Davis’ Center for Comparative Medicine on Sunday to commemorate more than a quarter-century of headway made in the fight against HIV/AIDS.
The free public event titled “The Discovery of AIDS and HIV: Contributions of California to the Early Years of AIDS Research,” included presentations by over two dozen California researchers.
The keynote speaker, Nobel laureate and co-discoverer of HIV, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, emphasized how California’s seminal research has shed light on this once mysterious disease.
“It’s all together that we will win this fight against HIV/AIDS,” Barré-Sinoussi said to a full audience. “It’s really the work of unity that wins the Nobel Prize … and you, in California, are among that community.”
A large variety of topics were covered at the event, but one of the main themes discussed was the history of the disease in California. Speakers addressed the role the state has played in understanding the complexity of human immunodeficiency virus – or HIV – and the mechanism by which it infects its host’s immune system cells.
“The initial characterization of the disease was made in California, mostly [in] San Francisco and L.A.,” said Paul Luciw, professor of pathology and comparative medicine at UC Davis. “Luckily there were major academic medical centers with a great deal of experience in infectious disease [at UCSF and UCLA.]”
Because AIDS was first recognized in California, researchers in the state were able to analyze and identify the disease before their international colleagues.
“It was both the infectious disease and cancer physicians that contributed to the understanding of the disease, and a lot of that happened in California,” Luciw said. “A lot of clinical work and a lot of research in AIDS is still going on in the UC system – even at the UC Davis medical center.”
Many speakers at the event mentioned the modest success of the HIV vaccine that was announced late last week. The clinical trial inoculated 16,000 volunteers in Thailand for a six-year period and found that vaccinated individuals contracted HIV at a rate one-third lower than controls.
“The vaccine trial just announced says that 30 to 31 percent efficacy is possible,” Luciw said. “That’s still pretty low, but it’s a step in the right direction.”
Luciw was cautiously optimistic regarding the future of HIV vaccination.
“As we learn more about the immune system, we’ll learn more about how to manipulate the immune system to better deal with the virus, maybe even eliminate the virus,” he said.
Some lecturers commended the great advancement in HIV medication. Such medication allows infected individuals to live longer.
Because of antiretroviral drugs – medications that interfere with HIV replication – some HIV-positive patients can live many decades longer than non-treated patients.
“People who can tolerate the drugs generally live several decades,” Luciw said. “Some of those may come to approaching a normal, healthy lifespan.”
Luciw noted that if one adds the extra years lived by every HIV-positive patient who has taken or who are currently taking antiretroviral drugs, three million years of patient life have been saved thus far.
“Extended life shows that we can really make an impact,” said Stephen Spector, HIV researcher and pediatrician at UCSD. “But we need to develop vaccines and further research antiretroviral drugs.”
HIV infection has reached pandemic proportions in many parts of the world, and most presenters stressed the importance of continued research.
“We shouldn’t be too optimistic,” Luciw said. “There are drugs for treatment, but there are problems and limitations. We still need more research before we can really get this problem under control.”
MICHAEL MILLER can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.