Abstract: "Seeking an Antidote for AIDS"

May 11, 1991

Hofstadter, Laura. "Seeking an Antidote for AIDS". Stanford Medicine. 1986. Reprinted in Funk & Wagnalls Science Yearbook, 1988. pp. 226-232.

The AIDS virus was initially isolated in 1984 when researchers by scientists from France and the United States. Soon after that, researchers discovered that the AIDS virus liked to 'stay cool', and couldn't stand excess heat. In 1985, the blood-banks around the United States adopted an effective screening test for AIDS. Now that the virus has been identified, how do you protect people from the syndrome?

First, you need to know how the virus works. Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome is caused by a virus which attacks the brain and the immune system. Once infected, the body is highly vulnerable to neurological damage, cancers, and infections. After being infected, there is usually a lag time of up to five years before the disease starts to show itself. Once the disease appears in its full-form, the person often dies from the onset of another disease which the body is ill-prepared to defend against. Some of the diseases which often are contracted by AIDS patients include Pneumocystis pneumonia, Cytomegalovirus infection, dementia, tuberculosis, and toxoplasmic encephalitis. Also rare forms of cancer such as Kaposi's sarcoma also pop up in AIDS patients.

The AIDS virus initiates its destructive activity by attaching itself to crucial immune system cells. Its target is a specific protein found on helper-T lymphocytes and monocyte macrophages. It then uses the cell for the typical viral activity, propagating itself. Then the AIDS virus starts to play dirty. It uses its prisoner cell to call in other immune system cells to form one giant glob. This mass of cells eventually dies, effectively depleting the body of most of its defensive system.

An impressive micrograph is included that shows how the AIDS virus causes its massive destruction. The picture shows the blood system with a couple of AIDS-infected cells in different stages of their infection. It also helps to show how a vaccine would help control the destruction caused by the AIDS virus.

Luckily, AIDS is much more difficult to contract than the common cold. The most common way for AIDS to be spread is through heterosexual or homosexual intercourse. It is also spread from a mother to her fetus. Blood exchange, especially through common use of hypodermics also contributes to the spread of AIDS. However, blood-bank transfusions are relatively safe, and very few cases of the AIDS virus seep into the system.

One prospective AIDS vaccine is the 'synthetic-peptide' vaccine. This consists of a synthetic protein that would mimic the protein coat of the AIDS virus. The use of it would hopefully ready the body to fight against the real AIDS virus were it infected. Another vaccine attempts to halt the AIDS virus by blocking the protein hooks that the virus attaches too. Unfortunately, the AIDS virus my be related to the animal lentivirus which can incubate in the brain for decades, and is impossible to combat.

Presently the only drugs available merely slow the progress of AIDS, and alleviate some of its symptoms. Some of the drugs work by inhibiting reverse transcriptase, the enzyme the AIDS virus uses to replicate itself. Others attempt to strengthen the immune system which was weakened by AIDS. Drugs used to combat AIDS must also be able to get past the blood-brain barrier. If the drug can't, the virus may still run rampant in the brain. Further research is also been done into some of the AIDS-related diseases such as Toxoplasma encephalitis, which have little effect on non-infected people, but often cause death in AIDS patients.

This article explained the present ('86-'87) AIDS situation and described AIDS's background, but still left many unanswered questions, especially in the area of AIDS control drugs. The future for AIDS sufferers is still bleak, with only a few bright spots.

This article was very well-written, smoothly slipping from anecdotal colloquialisms to scientific explanations. It, however, went overboard on a few minor topics, while leaving holes in crucial areas. Other than that, the article was magnificent, and included adequate pictorial representations to ease the tedious task of monochromatic reading.

As to AIDS in general, too much emphasis is being placed on this disease. Most researchers are jumping on the AIDS bandwagon, when we are on the verge of finding a cure for cancer, which kills a great deal more people each year. Some research does need to be done, but not at the expense of other disease which are no longer in the 'disease-of-the-month' club.