A recent post from Isis the Scientist reminds us of that which we are all too able to ignore in this era of Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy (HAART). HIV/AIDS may be slightly more controllable now. Infected individuals may be living much longer and with higher quality of life. Especially in the developed world regions from which much of this blog's traffic derives. We have become somewhat complacent in comparison with my memory of the first stages of what has been termed the HIV/AIDS pandemic.
Make no mistake. People are still dying prematurely. Dying because the scientific and medical efforts have been only partially successful and have yet to find a cure or preventative vaccine. People who are wonderful, helpful, joy-inducing, productive and loved members of our workplaces and families. Isis' post laments the passing of an individual who was a close and valued colleague.
Isis' post wonders if we have lost steam in our efforts to find cures or vaccines for AIDS.
As with no doubt many of you, I read the latest failures of large-scale vaccine studies with disappointment. It does seem at times as though drug therapy has also reached another plateau from which additional progress seems uncertain. (Although as someone who was at least somewhat aware of this health crisis from the no-therapy to the advent of AZT and then through modern cocktail HAART approaches, I appreciate that this is a lofty plateau indeed.) And people are still dying.
I am very far from an expert in the area and I have no answers for her. [I'll just note that Respectful Insolence and Aetiology are places to seek public-health side blogging on HIV/AIDS and of course ERV is the place for retrovirus biology] I do not know if research on HIV and AIDS has slackened although I suspect not. I have some colleagues working on infections disease and it seems that interest and NIH funding is still quite high. I've noted that the annual address by the Director of NIDA to the College on Problems of Drug Dependence frequently mentions the Congressional mandate to spend large fraction of the NIDA budget on HIV/AIDS research. There are other ICs with similar obligations. Not unexpectedly there is even a bit of water-cooler muttering about the relative balance of funding on AIDS in these tight times. I tend to conclude that it is not the research effort or interest that is the problem but rather that this is a really intractable problem.
Isis' post also triggered some additional thoughts on animal research which is the main point of the day.
Much of our understanding of the function of the very tricky and evasive Human Immunodeficiency
Virus was derived from animal research. This should not be surprising. And my point is not to rah-rah about which particular successes depended on which particular study.
Rather it is to make the assertion that this is one of the areas in which study of three of the more controversial laboratory species has been essential. Well, two really. The chimpanzee model has been important but has not been much of a player for the simple reason that there is, comparatively speaking, very, very little research on chimpanzee, period. This leaves the macaque monkey (simian immunodeficiency virus; SIV) and the cat (feline immunodeficiency virus; FIV). For those that are interested, by all means trod on over to PubMed and search for SIV or FIV and start reviewing the wealth of literature. Otherwise, for the main purpose here, just take my assertion that FIV and SIV investigations have been very big users of monkeys and cats in research in the past 15-20 years. There have been lots of vaccine trials, drug tests and basic virological/immunological research studies ongoing which have, if you add up the numbers, been VERY substantial users of the respective species compared to other research domains to which these species contribute.
It is rare to hear complaints about these uses, even from pretty extreme anti-animal research voices. Vanishingly rare. Rare even when minor flareups of ARA activity erupt.
Why is this? And where are you on this, Dear Reader?
Is it because AIDS scares or seems more salient to those who tend to oppose animal research? Is it a logical calculus of what is to be gained by additional research? The rather dramatic changes within recent memory of the prospects of the HIV infected individual before AZT came into use and after HAART was developed?
Is the use of the more charismatic laboratory species somehow better justified when it is for HIV/AIDS research? If so, how does that work?