Science Cures AIDS! Again.

HIV particle modeled by Visual Science

When I graduated from architecture school, I knew almost nothing about science or the body. As an example, I though our digestive system simply separated food into solid or liquid and then pushed both down toward our no-no parts. I was amazed to learn about how food is broken down and either absorbed or excreted. Somewhere in this lesson, I picked up the tidbit that pee actually comes from your blood. Yeah… your blood. Grossly simplified, the nephrons in your kidneys filter blood, removing waste products and send them down to your bladder. In the microgravity of space, your bones don’t need to be as sturdy, so osteoclasts start acting on your bone matrix, leeching calcium and sending it into your bloodstream. The calcium is removed and excreted. So not only does pee come from your blood, but an astronaut can pee out his or her bones.

Science is full of such data. I’ve picked up a trove of surprising facts for the past several years but they don’t tell you all that much and quickly become mere trivia. There’s a larger lesson to learn from science that has to do with skepticism. You may intuitively know to be skeptical of “miracle” or “breakthrough” claims that are tacked onto statements about science, but these statements are not always immediately apparent. It might be easy for you to dismiss advertisements or claims about some “Scientists Discovery Fat-Busting Miracle Secret Berry that Jenny Craig Hates” but statements about some “Phenomenal New Therapeutic for Retroviral Disease State Management” may not invite as much criticism. Yes, amazing things are happening in science, but the results of studies tend to be amplified as they echo through media outlets.

Some of the loudest science news recently has been about different cures for H.I.V. First, an American in Germany, then a baby in Mississippi, and now a dozen of patients in France. But what do these advances really mean? That maybe there should be an asterisk next to the word cure. The video above video from the NYT with Donald G. McNeil Jr. helps put recent advances in the management of H.I.V. in perspective. The video also features a couple of images of the H.I.V., but my favorite image of the virus is the one at the top of the post. Created by Ivan Konstantinov, the image is a “fluffy gray and orange ball” that is a cell infected with the retrovirus that infects the cell and then hijacks the cell’s own machinery to make more copies of itself. The parts in gray are the host cell, and the orange parts are where the virus has altered the cell. The image shows the most detailed 3-D model of the virus ever made.

Every Wednesday at work, we have a lunch seminar of emerging research relevant to our department’s focus. While scientists click through PowerPoints heavy with jargon and Comic Sans, we sit in the back and eat pizza. Even after years of attending these, my eyes still tend to glaze over halfway through their presentations. My brain just quits being able to squeeze more of the facts being doled out. At the end of the hour, all I’m left with is a bit more trivia. As we file out of the room, piling our paper plates in overfilled trashcans, the topic of conversation is invariably on some aspect of the study that someone thinks is flawed. Whether it’s the design of the study, or how the investigator measured his or her results, there’s always skepticism to drag any hint of a lofty statement burning back toward earth. They aren’t being rude, they’re just making sure that claims can be backed up with reproducible evidence; they’re just being scientists.

Alex Dent

May 9, 2013 / By