American Culture

Scroguely Interview: Dr David Baltimore and the Nelson Mandela Science Lecture

Dr David BaltimoreAs Dr David Baltimore rose to speak a smoke and thunder of voices rattled the doors at the back of the Great Hall at the University of the Witwatersrand in Johannesburg. Protestors outside had threatened to disrupt his presentation of the third annual Nelson Mandela Science Lecture.

Baltimore is the President Emeritus and Robert Andrews Millikan Professor of Biology of the California Institute of Technology. His work on the identification of reverse transcriptase – the mechanism by which retroviruses, like HIV, infect cells – earned him the 1975 Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine at the age of 37.

Baltimore is in South Africa at the invitation of the Africa Genome Education Institute to speak on his experiences in searching for solutions to HIV.

Africa, with 10% of the world’s population, has 60% of its infections. In 1994 South Africa, at the dawn of transition to majority rule, already had 850,000 people infected with HIV. In 2007, largely as a result of government negligence and the promotion of “alternative” remedies such as garlic and beetroot, there are 5.5 million South Africans who are HIV positive.

The discussion of HIV and AIDS in South Africa is not without controversy.

The people outside the Great Hall, held back by campus security, were students. And they weren’t concerned about AIDS. They were protesting the university’s decision to raise fees and expressing their displeasure by emptying garbage out of bins and interrupting lectures.

Inside the hall a student yelled to Baltimore, “You’re my hero! You rock!” Baltimore laughed.

Africa is where chaos goes for its vacation.

HIV was identified in 1981 and is now the most studied virus in science. It is also history’s most destructive, estimated to have been responsible for the deaths of 25 million people.

All obvious solutions have been studied. 23 anti-viral HIV drugs have been created. People all over the world, from both public and private institutions, collaborate on studying it. Yet HIV persists.

Three years ago the Gates Foundation offered grants for the study of audacious new approaches to combating HIV. Baltimore was one of the recipients for a gene therapy approach and he is now building the tools necessary for it to work.

“If you are going to think about complicated issues in science then you must be prepared to be wrong,” he says. That doesn’t ameliorate the awful disappointment at the failure of the Merck vaccine trial.

Merck stopped their phase II trial of a potential HIV vaccine, based on an adenovirus vector, after interim results showed that it was ineffective. Merck’s vaccine was hoped to stimulate an immune response in the body’s CD8 T killer cells and allow them to recognise and destroy HIV.

“There is no obvious solution,” says Baltimore, “but the T cell vaccine was a bit of a ‘Hail Mary’.” In other words, a wild stab at a solution without any obvious signs that it would succeed.

The great difficulty for researchers is that none of their laboratory standards (chimpanzees or mice) are affected by HIV in the same way as humans. Successful testing of vaccines on them gives no indication of how we will respond.

For this reason, and to complement his research on gene therapy, Baltimore has completed the creation of a chimeric mouse which has a human immune system. One-day-old mice are injected with CD34+ stem cells that then supplant the mice’s own immune systems. An infection protocol is still in development.

Gene therapy requires that new genes be incorporated into the human genome to express new proteins to combat HIV in novel ways. “Interestingly,” says Baltimore, “the virus that is a natural for this role is HIV itself.”

What constitutes a novel gene that may do the job?

Retroviruses operate by integrating themselves into their host’s DNA. The enzyme responsible for kicking off the process that synthesises a DNA copy of the RNA virus is reverse transcriptase. Interfere with the operation of reverse transcriptase and HIV is unable to function. Many of the anti-viral therapies for HIV have taken this approach.

There is also a certain circularity in Baltimore building genes to target the enzyme the identification of which earned him his Nobel Prize.

How does one target the action of reverse transcriptase?

“Micro RNA is a very exciting new discovery,” says Baltimore, of one approach. Micro RNA (miRNA) are tiny lengths of RNA, containing no genes, which regulate gene expression directly. The miRNA is complementary to messenger RNA (which carries the code for protein production) and acts to dampen gene expression. In other words, it is an off switch.

Novel miRNAs could be produced to interfere with HIV RNA synthesis to DNA.

500 miRNAs have been identified and there is an enormous amount of work still to perform. Baltimore has just been appointed to be head of a scientific panel advising a new business looking into this.

Another area is histone modification. Histones are proteins which act as spools around which DNA winds, and play a role in gene expression. They could be used to turn whole regions of genes on or off.

Gene approaches run risks in terms of how patients respond.

Amgen, a company where Baltimore is a director, has a drug called Vectibix. It is used for the treatment of colorectal cancer and inhibits the epidermal growth factor receptor (EGFr). They have recently discovered that only 15% of patients respond to the therapy. It appears that the bulk of patients have EGFr genes with mutations downstream of the gene that are sufficient to prevent the efficacy of the drug.

It could be that a gene therapy approach to HIV runs into similar complications. This opens up the necessity for pharmacogenetics where remedies are targeted to specific expressions of particular ailments.

“It may be that I can’t pull off the gene therapy approach,” says Baltimore,”but I think we will. The Gates Foundation only wants to fund things that are a great challenge. If you spend a lifetime in research doing this you’ll probably never get funded. But, occasionally, you’ve got to be willing to take a giant leap.”

Dr Baltimore was interviewed by Gavin Chait. Dr Baltimore met briefly with Nelson Mandela immediately prior to his presentation at the University of the Witwatersrand. He is next travelling to Cape Town to join a gathering of grantees of the Gates Foundation and will then fly to Rwanda at the invitation of their ministry of Health. His full Nelson Mandela Science Lecture is available at the AGEI website.

5 replies »

  1. Thanks for snagging Dr. Baltimore, WH. Sincerely hope miRNA research pays off.

    However, just because President Mbeki presented the HIV dissident viewpoint with heavy-handed self-righteousness resulting in enormous destruction doesn’t invalidate that position. (I know: If that doesn’t, what does? Please bear with me.)

    To sum up for those unfamiliar with it, here’s the blurb from a DVD of Gary Null (Act-Up calls him an AIDS denier, as in Holocaust denier):

    Many Africans exhibiting symptoms of AIDS–such as poor immune function and other opportunistic diseases–are not so much the victims of HIV as they are of an impoverished environment that includes malnutrition, unclean water, parasites, disease and stress?

    Null marshals the facts to show that the HIV “epidemic” in Africa has been largely overstated. For instance, statistic sampling of African prostitutes has been improperly extrapolated to the entire African population. Further, tests for the HIV antibody are deceptive, as the level of the HIV antibody, like many other antibodies, can be cross-linked and elevated in response to other much more common diseases prevalent throughout Africa, such as malaria and tuberculosis.

    The consequences, Null points out, can be dire. Billions of dollars are spent on toxic AIDS drugs that further destroy the immune system while the primary diseases, such as malaria and tuberculosis, which led to the false HIV diagnosis in the first place, remain totally untreated. Even worse, these diseases flourish, while the immune system, already weakened by poverty and illness, is further decimated by dangerous AIDS drugs.

    According to Null, the false common assumptions about HIV and its treatment have led to an unmitigated disaster of the largest human proportions. Whatever your view is on HIV and AIDS, you can not help but be challenged by the research amassed by Null in this critically important series on AIDS in Africa.

    For those who wish to pursue this dialogue, I’m afraid I can’t because I’m not knowledgeable enough about the subject. I’m just a person with great faith in Gary Null.

  2. I am knowledgeable about it and will sum up as follows:

    – a person in good health may be able to throw off occasional (but not regular) exposures to HIV; so poverty and malnutrition are likely to suppress your immune system and make you more susceptible to HIV.
    – this does NOT mean that poverty causes AIDS-like symptoms
    – good nutrition helps to support the immune system and so can assist you in staying healthy for longer once you have AIDS; but good nutrition alone is insufficient to fight AIDS.

    There isn’t much of a response to the statement that AIDS drugs have side-effects that can be unpleasant. Yes. Perhaps you prefer the certainty of death to the uncertainty of side-effects?

    South Africa’s life-expectancy is now down to 43 years. A decade ago it was 60. South Africa – a developing country with high fertility rates – has a negative population growth rate.

    AIDS exists and HIV is the cause.

  3. You should write more on why HIV is so problematic within the African culture…particularly why women are being so terribly affected…

    Culture has a large part to play.

  4. I am a South African reader of Scholars and Rogues and greatly appreciate the quality of the analysis on this site.
    However, I have to take serious issue with the following statement from this article: ‘Africa is where chaos goes for its vacation.’

    I expect that this statement might have been written without malice, but I still take offense at its sweeping aggression towards my home continent. Yes, Africa has enormous problems rooted in poverty, patriarchal dominance, political corruption and economic oppression, but it is our home.

    Please be more respectful of its citizens.

  5. Werner, I’m a South African too. Trust me on this, it’s chaos. I quite enjoy it.

    Next time there’s a riot a Wits lets scoot along and have some popcorn while watching the students throw garbage around and toyi-toyi?