Over three decades of AIDS research have yielded stunning scientific and medical advances, most notably lifesaving antiretroviral therapy, which has drastically expanded life expectancy for HIV-positive individuals on treatment. But AIDS research has also contributed immensely to the study and treatment of various human diseases such as cancer, hepatitis, and heart disease.
In the August issue of The Journal of Infectious Diseases, Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, argues that while such advances in the field alone justify the huge investment made in AIDS research, “the collateral advantages of this investment above and beyond HIV/AIDS have been profound, leading to insights and concrete advances in separate, diverse, and unrelated fields of biomedical research and medicine.”
For example, because HIV greatly limits the ability of the immune system to orchestrate appropriate responses, researchers have learned how immune abnormalities affect the course of other diseases, in particular the ability of a healthy immune system to keep cancers such as non-Hodgkin lymphoma and Kaposi sarcoma in check. In addition, studies of abnormal immune activation due to HIV have led to new insights in conditions normally associated with aging, in particular heart disease.
Concerted efforts to develop drugs that target specific HIV enzymes have aided in the development of the first cure for a viral infection, hepatitis C. A more complete understanding of the complicated path taken by B cells to make broadly neutralizing antibodies, driven by intensive HIV research, contributed to developing promising leads for vaccines against other viral infections including Ebola, Zika, and flu. Two other infectious killers of people living in low and middle income settings, tuberculosis and malaria, frequently co-occur with HIV and have been studied intensively in the setting of HIV research.
HIV has also become a valuable tool in gene therapy. Researchers can use inactivated virus—so it can no longer cause disease—as a Trojan horse to deliver beneficial gene modifications. This development made possible the two currently approved CAR T cell therapies that have revolutionized the treatment of acute lymphoblastic leukemia.
Since AIDS research has repeatedly contributed to the development of new ways to treat a wide variety of diseases, sustained, prudent investment will ensure the promise of continued advances within the field and beyond.
You can read amfAR’s overview of the broad benefits of AIDS research here.