Today's date:
Fall 2008

AIDS Cure Is Far Off

David Baltimore, 70, won the Nobel prize in Physiology or Medicine in 1975. Head of the Baltimore Laboratory at the California Institute of Technology, Baltimore has been a scientific leader on AIDS and stem-cell research. He was interviewed for NPQ’s syndicated Nobel Laureates service by Andre Petry of Veja Magazine.

NPQ | Why have the experiments to find a vaccine against AIDS not been successful so far?

David Baltimore | The path is extremely difficult. It is so difficult that, at this time, I cannot say we will have a vaccine soon, if ever. I have hopes that the scientific community will be successful in this tough assignment, but so far we have not found a way that gives us the certainty that we will obtain a vaccine.

It is fundamental that scientists continue with the research, but the HIV virus, due to its constitution, is practically insensitive to antibodies, and most vaccines work with antibodies. Maybe the path to fight AIDS is a different one.

NPQ | What might this different path be?

Baltimore | We are exploring a line of research with genetic therapy. Our studies intend to discover if we can modify the immunologic system of a person. If we manage to do that, we can endow the immunological system with the ability of doing things that it does not know how to do naturally, such as fighting the HIV virus.

NPQ | If genetic therapy eventually works to fight HIV, would it also work against cancer?

Baltimore | Yes.

NPQ | What was your reaction when you saw the HIV virus for the first time?

Baltimore | It was soon after the existence of the virus was found, in the beginning of the 1980s. When I realized what was in front of me, I admit that I was astonished and frightened. I was really scared. It was the first time that I saw a retrovirus. It was able to do things that we had never seen before, able to cause immunodeficiency—that is, render our immunological system inefficient. That was impressive and scary.

NPQ | What is your view of the controversial research with stem cells of human embryos rejected by fertilization clinics? Those who are against it say that destroying an embryo is the same as committing murder. What do you think?

Baltimore | Scientifically, this is a pointless argument. After all, the human embryos were rejected because the couple has already had the number of children that they wanted or for any other reason. The fact is that the embryos will be destroyed anyway. The question is whether they will be destroyed or will do something good for other people. In my opinion, the answer is obvious.

NPQ | Scientists who defend the preservation of embryos in fertilization clinics usually say that research with adult stem cells are as promising, or even more promising, than research with embryonic stem cells. Is it true?

Baltimore | If I were to make a bet, I would say that adult stem cells will be the first ones to present concrete results because we know them better and therefore we know more about the way they function. In looking for more immediate results, adult stem cells are more promising.

But in the long run, embryonic stem cells are much more promising because they have a much greater potential for transformation. They have the ability of evolving into any human tissue. Still, for now, we do not know them very well.

NPQ | What is the greatest challenge you face in this realm of research?

Baltimore | Controlling the evolution of stem cells. Since they have a huge transformation potential, we have to discover how to make them evolve in a specific way, in the way we want them to. For instance, if we want them to turn into a nerve, into a cardiac or bone tissue, we will have to have guarantee that the evolution will result in a nerve, in a cardiac or bone tissue.

             Our challenge is to know how to avoid having them grow in a disorderly manner, because this could result in cancer. In addition to finding out how to control this evolution, we must also be capable of applying this control in a frequent and systematic way. We still do not have an answer for these questions.

NPQ | Are religion and science incompatible?

Baltimore | I believe that science and religion act in different fields. One does not answer the other one’s questions. For this reason, I see no incompatibility.

NPQ | Do you think President George W. Bush’s administration is against science?

Baltimore | I do not know if it is against science, but certainly this administration has been noteworthy in its lack of interest for science. Even the agency that supports science and that used to work in the White House was transferred to another place in Washington. Everything adds up to show that the current administration is not interested in the subject.

NPQ | Since the White House has closed the door, California has picked up the slack and approved the creation of a $3 billion fund to finance research with stem cells of human embryos. Has this produced any positive results yet?

Baltimore | Since the administration in Washington does not support research with embryos, scientists face legal constraints because they do not know if they can bet on certain research paths. This ends up restraining even financial resources. When I left the committee that used to choose the scientific projects that the government of California was going to finance, little money was released. We have only about two years of work behind on this. It is not much.

NPQ | Has the lack of interest of the American government helped delay scientific progress in the world?

Baltimore | I believe it has, yes. In the case of stem cells, for instance, considering that the funding with federal money is limited to some lines of research only, the contribution of the United States could have been a lot broader. Luckily, this will probably end with the presidential election, whoever is elected. Both the Republican candidate (Sen. John McCain) and the Democratic candidate (Sen. Barack Obama) have called for changing the stance of the US government. The current American scientific policy must be immediately changed. In the US, despite private investments, the government is the greatest promoter of science.

NPQ | Does the lack of political support delay the progress of some experiments or even paralyze it completely?

Baltimore | In the 1970s, for example, in vitro fertilization was a delicate issue: It caused polemics, and politicians chose to keep a distance. However, research was eventually developed. In this case, the lack of governmental support had another negative consequence in the US. In vitro fertilization developed as a non-regulated industry because the government was afraid to be involved in the issue.

NPQ | Does the increasing denunciations of scientific frauds undermine the credibility that science needs precisely at a moment when it has to deal with polemic issues, such as cloning?

Baltimore | We need to understand that we have seen more cases of fraud because we are doing more science. I do not think that this is an issue that has reached the point of threatening the credibility of scientists and of their research.

NPQ | You won the Nobel Prize when you were 37 years old. From then on, did you have to deal with an excess weight on your shoulders, a commitment to being a genius in every step of your work?

Baltimore | Actually, it is the opposite. Most people think that, after receiving a Nobel Prize, one will do nothing else relevant. Many people are even impressed when they find out I am still doing research.

NPQ | Did the Nobel Prize help you have more opportunities for earning funding for your research?

Baltimore | In the US, the Nobel Prize does not give one more opportunities. Most of the financing comes from the federal government, and the people in the government funding agencies look even closer at those who have earned a Nobel Prize to make certain their projects are really worthwhile. They want to rule out the suspicion that the laureates might be asking for money without offering much, relying only on their prestige as a Nobel Prize laureate.