HIV's discovery remembered at USC

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Some of the nation’s top doctors and researchers met at USC Monday to commemorate the discovery of AIDS in Los Angeles.

In April of 1981 a 33-year-old assistant professor at UCLA’s medical center and his colleagues were the first to identify a mysterious disease that severely damaged the immune system of its victim, primarily afflicting gay men.

Dr. Michael Gottlieb, now with Cedars-Sinai, wrote a paper for the Centers for Disease Control about four identical cases of the illness, which came to be known as Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome, or AIDS. Gottlieb said the medical world was not scientifically or financially prepared to address the pandemic when AIDS was first discovered.

"We have come a very long way in these 30 years," said Gottlieb, adding, "the first decade, the 80s, were pretty bleak with regard to treatment." The 1990s, he said, showed a marked improvement, with the development of anti-viral therapies that helped manage the disease.

Among the scientists at the symposium was Paula Cannon, a stem cell researcher from USC. Cannon's research focuses on new stem cell therapies that could someday replace modern-day drug treatments. While drugs extend patients’ lives, she said, they also cause unwanted side effects and are extremely expensive.

Cannon says all of those drawbacks make stem cells the closest thing to a cure.

"The definition of cure to me is somebody who is HIV positive, wakes up one day and no longer has to take drugs to keep their virus in check," she said.

Cannon said her goal is to give people HIV resistant cells that render the virus virtually harmless.

"If we can basically allow them to not have to take drugs — and kind of not worry about the virus in their body. ... People can kind of live with it," she said.

In three decades, AIDS has killed more than 30 million men and women. More than 30 million others are infected with HIV, the virus that causes AIDS. There’s still no cure.

The symposium took place at the USC Center for Regenerative Medicine and Stem Cell Research.