More than two decades ago, when I was an attending physician on the wards of San Francisco General Hospital, every single one of my patients had AIDS. And there wasn't a thing that we could do about it. Every one of my patients died.
So it was very moving for me to join Gladstone to lead the charge against this deadly disease as the director of virology and immunology research in 1991. At the time, we didn't know the full dimensions of the epidemic. It was then a few hundred thousand. Soon, it became a few million.
Today, even though HIV/AIDS has killed a devastating 34 million people, the basic science being done at Gladstone and similar organizations has helped to save millions of other lives along the way. Our studies of HIV have uncovered fundamentals of human biology that impact a whole range of disease processes beyond AIDS, as our study of the virus has given us a glimpse into the inner workings of normal cells that HIV pirates. And the creation of more than 30 drugs targeting different parts of the HIV life cycle will go down in history as a spectacular medical milestone.
But we urgently need to do more. There is no time to lose for the 35 million people currently infected with HIV/AIDS around the world—and the many more at risk of acquiring this virus. Thanks to today’s highly effective combinations of antiretroviral drugs, many HIV-infected people have lived beyond the age of 50. But we are witnessing a new and troubling fact—many of these individuals are dying earlier than expected from conditions associated with old age, such as heart disease, liver disease and dementia.
In absolute terms, we are still facing an expanding HIV/AIDS epidemic with a new and unexpected complication. In order to better understand, prevent, treat and cure HIV/AIDS, we need to better understand three essential processes: the link between the virus and inflammation; the type of immune response needed to prevent virus transmission; and HIV’s ability to establish latent reservoirs resistant to drug treatment.
As we work with purpose and urgency to overcome such challenges, we are also busy training the next generation of virologists and immunologists. This critical element of our work is one of the most magical parts of my job. I fully understand that this next generation of scientists will accomplish far more than I can by virtue of their sheer numbers. We give their successful training the highest priority.