More than 30 years ago, doctors diagnosed the first cases of acquired immune deficiency syndrome, or AIDS. Shortly thereafter, scientists isolated the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV, and research into the disease and ways to overcome it rapidly expanded.
John Rossi (Photo by Paula Myers)
HIV/AIDS expert John J. Rossi, Ph.D., Lidow Family Research Chair in City of Hope’s Department of Molecular and Cellular Biology, has been a pioneer in studying the disease and developing novel methods of treating it. He recently answered questions about advancements made in the last three decades — and prospects for a cure.
EHope: How much progress has been made in the past 30 years against HIV/AIDS?
John Rossi, Ph.D.: We have had great improvements in outcomes, and in reducing the viral load in the bodies of HIV-infected people. As good as that is, if people stop taking the drugs, the virus still comes back. So now we need to start thinking about not just treatment, but a cure.
EH: Is a cure for AIDS possible?
JR: There is one patient who has been cured of AIDS. He is called “the Berlin Patient,” because he was treated in Berlin, though he is an American. The patient received a bone marrow transplant from a donor under a unique set of circumstances. We can’t apply that specific treatment to the entire world, but we are developing techniques to go after virally infected cells.
EH: Will this treatment become available soon?
JR: There’s not going to be one “boom” in people being cured. There may be one person a year, but once new processes are developed, we may be able to cure thousands of people a year. That is slow progress — but six years ago we thought that no one could be cured.
EH: Over the years there’s been a great deal of talk about a vaccine to prevent HIV infection. What’s the status of vaccine research?
JR: I don’t see a vaccine for HIV happening. The research has encountered too many problems. Gene therapy offers more sophisticated tools.
EH: What research is under way at City of Hope?
JR: In an article in Science Translational Medicine [in June 2010], we detailed our successful efforts in a unique, first-in-human gene therapy approach targeting HIV. It marks the first successful, long-term persistence of anti-HIV genes in patients with AIDS-related lymphoma. This is a very promising line of research that could lead to new treatment paradigms.
EH: Will there eventually be a widespread cure for AIDS?
JR: The Berlin Patient has set the precedent: If you eradicate virus from the patient, you cure the patient. So we are developing “smart bombs” that help kill HIV. We may use T cells that have been gene-modified for this purpose. We may even be able to put protective genes into a patient’s own cells. I now envision AIDS as a disease we will successfully combat — like we have successfully combated smallpox and polio.
I believe that is possible.