AIDS could soon be history.
Johnson & Johnson recently announced plans to test an experimental HIV vaccine in the United States, South America, and Europe. It’s already conducting a clinical trial of the vaccine in Africa, with results expected in 2021. If successful, this research could yield a workable vaccine within 10 years.
AIDS was once a death sentence. A quarter-century ago, HIV/AIDS was the leading cause of death among Americans aged 25 to 44. But over the last four decades, scientists have made significant progress against the disease and the virus that causes it. Today, someone diagnosed with HIV can expect to live approximately as long as someone without it, thanks to the latest antiretroviral treatments.
Research in animals made that progress possible — and has put a vaccine within reach.
Yet HIV is still a public health crisis. More than 1 million Americans have the virus, as do about 38 million people around the world. In sub-Saharan Africa, one of the regions hardest hit by HIV, almost 1 in every 25 adults is infected with HIV.
Animal research has been crucial for every major breakthrough in HIV treatment, in part because HIV is very similar to the simian immunodeficiency virus, which infects chimpanzees and macaques. Consequently, nonhuman primates were instrumental in testing the safety and effectiveness of the earliest antiretroviral treatments, including AZT — the first drug approved by the Food and Drug Administration to treat HIV/AIDS.
Animals also aided the development of a second revolutionary drug called saquinavir. After research in animals demonstrated that the drug was ready for clinical trials, saquinavir went on to become the first FDA-approved protease inhibitor. Almost immediately, use of this class of drug helped bring about a drop in AIDS-related deaths and hospitalizations of between 60% and 80% in countries that had access to it.
More recently, animal research has helped guide the search for an HIV vaccine. Studies showing that macaques could be immunized against SIV helped demonstrate the feasibility of such a vaccine.
In July, researchers eliminated HIV from the genome of a mouse using antiviral therapy and CRISPR-Cas9 gene editing. It was the first time they’d been able to do so in any animal — and it could represent a first step toward eradicating the virus in humans.
Despite delivering these important scientific victories, animal research is under attack. Many animal rights activists allege that all research on animals is cruel — and that powerful new computers can simulate much of the research traditionally conducted in animals. They’ve found some sympathetic ears in Congress, as lawmakers have introduced several bills that would limit the use of animals in research, including two singling out dogs and cats.
But their case is weak. For starters, animal research is carefully and ethically performed. Regulations governing such research in the United States reach further than those pertaining to research on humans. Researchers are required to provide quality food, shelter, and medical care to animal subjects. That includes administering anesthesia for potentially painful procedures.
Those powerful new computers and the use of artificial intelligence, meanwhile, are no match for the complexities of biology. Computer models are useful for studying things scientists fully understand and can replicate. But HIV can interact with living organisms in more ways than even the most robust simulation could ever consider.
Animal rights activists claim the moral high ground while arguing against this research. But ending a scientific practice that could help defeat HIV/AIDS is reckless at best — and inhumane at worst.
Matthew R. Bailey is president of the Foundation for Biomedical Research, which aims to illuminate the essential role of animal testing and research.