From October 13 to 16, 2016, Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory hosted HIV/AIDS Research: Its History & Future, an important meeting that brought together some of the most important researchers on HIV/AIDS from the past and present. Never before has a single meeting brought together so many pioneers in the field of human retroviruses to discuss the history of their field and the way forward in finding new paths for treating HIV/AIDS.
The venue was just as significant as the speakers. Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory holds a significant place in the history of HIV/AIDS research: In a virology meeting hosted by CSHL in September 1983, Luc Montagnier made important announcements about a virus he had discovered that would eventually become known as HIV. This was in the earliest days of research on the causes of AIDS, then a mysterious disease.
Over three decades later, luminaries of the field, among them Robert Gallo, gathered to discuss various historical and scientific aspects of HIV/AIDS:
The meeting was organized by Mila Pollock of CSHL, John Coffin of Tufts University, Bruce Walker of Harvard University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, and Robert Gallo of the Institute of Human Virology at the University of Maryland School of Medicine.
Science Magazine, reported on the meeting in At gathering of HIV/AIDS pioneers, raw memories mix with current conflicts article by Jon Cohen.
Documentary filmmaker Staffan Hildebrand, created a short film titled A film about a meeting. Hildebrand provides a brief glimpse at the AIDS epidemic through the eyes of those researchers, activists and clinicians attending the meeting, who dedicated their lives to treating this disease.
The meeting was the sixth in a series of CSHL Genentech Center Conferences on the History of Molecular Biology and Biotechnology. These conferences aim to explore important themes of discovery in the biological sciences, bringing together scientists who made seminal discoveries with others whose interests include: the current status of the field, the historical progress of the field, and/or the application of the techniques and approaches in biotechnology and medicine. Previous meetings in the series have included:
HIV, or human immunodeficiency virus, is a retrovirus that can infect humans and attacks the immune system. By attacking the body’s T cells, HIV weakens a person’s ability to fight infections.
Once a person is infected with HIV, the infection is permanent. It can be controlled, however, with antiretroviral drugs.
If not treated, HIV infection can lead to AIDS, also known as acquired immunodeficiency syndrome. AIDS is the last stage of HIV infection. It is a condition in which the human immune system is severely depleted. Those with AIDS are highly susceptible to other infections, and they typically survive only around three years.
The history of HIV/AIDS has much mystery to it. Scholars believe the virus originated in the former Belgian Congo in the 1920s – though it did not begin to occupy a place in the public consciousness until the early 1980s. By the end of 1981, there were reports of immune deficiency that had become rampant in gay men, especially in cities like Los Angeles and New York.
In May 1983, French physicians and scientists announced they had discovered LAV (Lymphadenopathy-Associated Virus), a previously unknown retrovirus that could be behind the mysterious disease. AIDS cases continued to rise. In April of the following year, the U.S. National Cancer Institute posited that AIDS was caused by the HTLV-III retrovirus. LAV and HTLV-III were found to be the same virus, which was renamed HIV in 1986.
A retrovirus is a virus whose genetic material is made up of RNA, not DNA. Retroviruses carry their own reverse transcriptase; this means the retrovirus is capable of converting its RNA into DNA once it has infected a host cell. Because of the way the host cell integrates the retroviral genome into its own, retroviral infections persist indefinitely.