Sorrow & Hope

A conversation about the past, present and future of AIDS with a scientist hunting for a vaccine

Photographs of microscopic organisms line the walls of the Institute of Human Virology entryway. Resembling modern abstract paintings, these framed images of colorful cells are at the root of the deadliest pandemic of our time—HIV.

For the layperson, these beautiful photos belie the horrendous impact of AIDS. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reports that in the 25 years of the AIDS pandemic, more than 500,000 Americans have died worldwide. According to Dr. David Holtgrave of Johns Hopkins University's Bloomberg School of Public Health, in the United States a person dies from AIDS every 33 minutes and there is a new HIV infection every 13 minutes. Amazingly, about 25 percent of the 1.1 million people in this country living with HIV don't even know they are infected.

But in many ways, things are less grim than they were 25 years ago when AIDS was discovered, at least in the developed world. While AIDS is still a threat to many Americans—rich, poor, white, black, gay, straight—treatment has advanced considerably. The blood supply is completely safe. And Americans with HIV/AIDS are living longer, more productive lives.

For Dr. Robert Gallo—the scientist who co-discovered that HIV causes AIDS and developed the blood test that detects the virus—the microscopic organism lining the walls of the Institute of Human Virology represent hope. Without the discovery of the virus, there would be no blood test, no protease inhibitors, no 'drug cocktail' treatment. Each advancement in the treatment of AIDS comes back to the discovery of the virus, he says. And now Gallo is on the hunt for the holy grail of HIV research—a vaccine.

Since the genesis of the AIDS pandemic, Gallo, 69, has been on the forefront of research into this aggressive and mysterious disease. He began his work while at the National Cancer Institute at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, called into action by a young CDC researcher named Jim Curran. An expert in retroviruses—infectious agents that implant their genetic material into a host cell's DNA—Gallo had already discovered the first known human retrovirus, which causes an unusual form of leukemia in young adults. In 1984 he announced his discovery of HIV: human immunodeficiency virus.

Read the Article

This year marks SFR’s 40th anniversary. Celebrate with us by reading excerpts of stories that have graced our pages through the years. Approximately 2,445 people are living with HIV in the state, according to the Kaiser Family Foundation.

Letters to the Editor

Mail letters to PO Box 4910 Santa Fe, NM 87502 or email them to editor[at] Letters (no more than 200 words) should refer to specific articles in the Reporter. Letters will be edited for space and clarity.

We also welcome you to follow SFR on social media (on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter) and comment there. You can also email specific staff members from our contact page.