Looking back at 35 years of HIV research

In support of World AIDS Day, authors of some of the most seminal papers spanning the history of HIV research describe what happened next.
Looking back at 35 years of HIV research

From its origins to vaccine development, we invited authors from several landmark papers to look back, share experiences and reflect on one of the most intensively studied pathogens in history: HIV.

John Moore writes how his 1996 paper on identification of the HIV co-receptor ended up at the White House, and how research at this time was “not a pleasant experience, but one that taught me a fair amount about the real world of academic life when the stakes are perceived to be high”. 

In 2006 a paper in Nature Medicine confirmed the involvement of the gut microbiome in the pathogenesis of HIV. This guest post, written by corresponding author Danny Douek, looks back at that paper and tells a story of generosity, collaboration and thinking outside the box.

It discombobulated immunology; it took virologists totally off, and showed us just how little we knew.

Simon Wain-Hobson led the team of researchers who were the first to publish the complete sequence of the HIV genomes only two years after the virus was first identified (in Cell, 1985). The team then went on to show that HIV has simian origins, publishing their findings a few years later in Nature. Simon describes what it was like working on HIV during this time: it discombobulated immunology; it took virologists totally off, and showed us just how little we knew.   

Robin Weiss goes back even further, all the way to 1984 when he reported CD4 as the cellular receptor for HIV infection (publishing in Nature). His community post shares the process of this discovery and what it meant for the next few years of HIV research. 

HIV DNA (green nuclei) detected by in situ PCR in CD4+ T cells around a blood vessel (Ashley Haase)

In the early 1990s, it was discovered that HIV infection is both active, replicating continuously, and latent, creating reservoirs in lymphatic tissues. Ashley Haase and colleagues made the latter discovery, publishing their findings in 1993. In his post, Ashley describes the exact moment of discovery and how researchers are still asking important questions 25 years later. The complexity of viral reservoirs, and the obstacle this creates in finding a cure for HIV, is also discussed in a post by Joseph Wong.

Dennis Burton's early research developing antibody-based HIV vaccines earned him a handwritten letter of support from vaccinologist Maurice Hilleman. Later, following a paper in Science (2009) which described a new vaccine target for HIV, Dennis Burton and colleagues kicked off a second generation of antibody-based vaccine design and development. He shares his hope and progress towards a vaccine for HIV sooner rather than later. 

You can read all these posts in more detail as part of our World AIDS Day channel, where you'll also find an obituary for Shuping Wang, a story of social enterprise and HIV in African communities, as well as a collection of Behind the Paper posts covering HIV/AIDS research published in our journals throughout the year. 

Thanks to all our contributors for taking the time to share their experiences. 

Founded in 1988, World AIDS Day happens on 1st December every year and was the first ever global health day. It's an opportunity to raise awareness of HIV and AIDS, and support those living with and affected by the disease.


Poster image: Scanning electron micrograph of HIV particles infecting a human H9 T cell. Credit: NIAID

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