Skip to Main Content

Research on AIDS Benefits Efforts Against Other Diseases

On this page:


Because of the unique nature of HIV--the way the virus enters a cell, causes infection, affects every organ system, and unleashes a myriad of opportunistic infections and cancers--and the pace at which the knowledge base has been expanded, AIDS research also is unraveling the mysteries surrounding many other infectious, malignant, neurologic, autoimmune, and metabolic diseases. In addition to its direct and indirect medical applications, basic knowledge of the biology of HIV infection and the processes by which it causes AIDS benefits other areas of basic research including immunology, virology, microbiology, molecular biology, and genetics. The study of drugs to treat HIV infection and its complications also has helped to establish new approaches for the design and conduct of more rapid clinical studies, as well as those that address the special recruitment requirements of women, minorities, and other underserved populations. In addition to learning more about the special recruitment requirements of these populations, the investment in behavioral and social sciences research has provided effective strategies for intervening in other diseases modified by individual behavior.

Effective drugs to treat other infectious diseases

The investment in AIDS research has provided a new paradigm for confronting viral diseases in general. Prior to the development of new potent antiviral drugs, virtually all efforts to combat viral diseases involved prevention (using vaccines) or palliation (treating symptoms). Few effective treatments were available for most common viral infections. The AIDS drug development experience has not only benefitted development of treatments for other viral diseases, but also will hasten drug development efforts for bacterial, mycobacterial and fungal diseases.

Advances in methods for drug design

AIDS therapeutics research, particularly the development of protease inhibitors, has convincingly demonstrated the importance of structural analysis in rational drug design and has resulted in a new generation of powerful inhibitors of HIV replication. Progress in this area depends on the identification of a promising molecular target for drug therapy, determination of the three-dimensional structure of the target molecular using sophisticated X-ray crystallographic methods, and structure-based drug design aided by the techniques of structural biology, optimization of ligand affinity and selectivity, and computer-based molecular modeling. HIV research has benefitted from the availability of these individual methods and, concurrently, has fostered significant improvements in each of these critical technologies, including X-ray crystallographic methodologies, nuclear magnetic resonance techniques, and computational approaches to medicinal chemistry. The continued support of these technological advances will benefit efforts to develop new drugs for other diseases. A number of the most promising anti-cancer drug candidates currently in clinical trials, including the mechanistically novel inhibitors of matrix metalloproteases, have been developed with a similar iterative structure-based approach to drug discovery. Structure-based drug design may also lead to the discovery and development of lead compounds against the coronavirus associated with SARS.

Treatments for opportunistic infections

Individuals who receive drugs that intentionally or unintentionally suppress the function of the immune system are, like HIV-infected patients, at significantly increased risk of infection with microorganisms that generally do not pose a hazard to those with fully functioning immune systems. Many forms of treatment for cancer involve the use of drugs that suppress the immune system. Transplantation of solid organs to treat organ failure (e.g., heart, liver, or kidney) and bone marrow transplants to treat malignant (e.g., leukemia) or hematologic diseases (e.g., immunodeficiency syndromes or genetic disorders of hemoglobin production such as sickle cell anemia) necessarily involves the use of drugs that suppress the immune system to prevent rejection of the transplanted organs or tissues. The development of effective drugs to prevent and treat many of the microorganisms that cause such opportunistic infections (OIs) promises real benefit to those undergoing cancer chemotherapy or receiving anti-transplant rejection therapy.

Understanding the origins and manifestations of malignancies

One of the cardinal manifestations of AIDS is the predisposition to develop specific types of cancer, including Kaposi's sarcoma and non-Hodgkin's lymphomas. That these cancers arise in the setting of host immunodeficiency provides strong support for the notion that the immune system can play an important role in suppressing the development of cancers. Because HIV suppresses the immune system and most AIDS-related malignancies are strongly associated with viruses, HIV infection provides a unique model to study the interplay of viruses, the impaired immune system, and the development of cancers. The HIV model also provides a unique opportunity to test novel approaches by which immune responses can be modified to help treat established malignancies.

Advances in the ability to diagnose infection and monitor the efficacy of therapy

AIDS research has provided new paradigms for the diagnosis of infectious diseases and for monitoring the efficacy of therapy. Molecular diagnostic methods use sensitive techniques to detect and quantify the pathogen in an infected individual. These methods now permit more rapid diagnosis of infectious diseases, facilitate earlier introduction of effective therapies, permit the design of faster, more informative clinical trials, and allow the individualization of optimal therapies.

Insight into the function of the human immune system in health and disease

The investment in AIDS research has enormously speeded the development of our understanding of the human immune system. Research on AIDS has led to major advances in our understanding of and ability to manipulate human immune responses. This research may allow more effective approaches to treat diseases in which dysregulated immune responses are either the actual cause of, or substantial contributing factor to, the fundamental disease process, including allergies, multiple sclerosis, juvenile diabetes, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, and systemic lupus erythematosus.

New approaches to the design and conduct of drug trials

NIH-sponsored AIDS research programs have brought about unprecedented cooperation among federal, university, and pharmaceutical industry scientists in the design, development, and testing of potential therapeutic agents and vaccines. AIDS research has resulted in new approaches in the design and conduct of clinical trials, as well as in recruiting and enrolling patients, especially women, children, IDUs, and minorities in these studies. These models are now being applied to test treatments for other diseases in faster, more efficient, and more inclusive protocols.

Advances in the study of neurologic manifestations

Research aimed at understanding how HIV enters the central nervous system (CNS) and how it results in neurologic disease has yielded important knowledge regarding the role that severe inflammatory processes within the CNS can have in neuronal degeneration and impairment of cognitive and motor functions. AIDS research has provided direct insights into the mechanisms by which neurotoxic molecules released by inflammatory processes in the brain induce neuronal injury and death.

Expansion of basic science knowledge base

The investment in AIDS research has enormously facilitated our progress in many areas of basic science. Indeed, this effort has been a major contributor to the knowledge base upon which the biotechnology industry has been built. Biotechnology companies are capitalizing on new basic biomedical information provided by AIDS research, most notably new findings regarding chemokines and novel proteins as targets for drug and vaccine development. The discovery of a series of chemokine receptors necessary for HIV entry into a cell has opened new research opportunities for studies on virus/host interactions and research on receptor biology. Findings from these studies may lead to novel therapeutics that can block cell surface receptors, thus potentially preventing further spread of viral infections and disease progression.

Expansion of clinical science research

Support of basic cancer research in the 1960s and 1970s provided several key tools and techniques for identifying subsets of human lymphocytes and retro/lentiviruses that made it possible to identify HIV and to elucidate the AIDS disease syndrome. Seminal research in basic immunology that identified mouse T-lymphocyte subsets led to parallel studies in human blood and lymphoid tissue. By 1980, the reagents that were needed for characterizing human T cells permitted the rapid characterization of severe lymphocyte loss in immunodeficiencies and the rapid comparison of the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome that initially appeared to be affecting gay men, infants, and blood transfusion recipients. In turn, clinical research in HIV-infected patients has generated a large knowledge base on lymphocyte subsets and immune activation markers that is being applied to autoimmune diseases and infectious diseases of both children and adults.

Insights into the impact of human behavior on public health

Basic behavioral and social science research has yielded information about the interpersonal dynamics and social settings in which HIV-related and other risk behaviors occur and the impact of the HIV/AIDS epidemic on individuals, families, communities, and societies.

Effective interventions to promote health and prevent disease

Improved methodologies for measuring behavioral and social factors

Addressing HIV transmission and prevention has required the development of better methods of measuring and assessing sensitive sexual and drug using behaviors within their social context.

Progress in understanding “emerging” and re-emerging infectious diseases

The emergence of HIV infection, SARS, Ebola virus infection, and hantavirus infection within the past 15 years has demonstrated not only that new diseases can appear in human populations but that they will likely continue to "emerge" in the future. Diseases once deemed "under control" also have re-emerged as important health problems in this country and around the world. Studies of the origin of HIV infection and the processes that contributed to its worldwide spread have significant implications for preventing or limiting similar epidemics in the future.

Go to top of page  |  This page was last reviewed on May 28, 2009.