Gay men are the ‘canary in the coal mine’ of future pandemics, warns doctor seeking HIV cure

Two men share a kiss
Posed by models (Photo: Shutterstock)

Testing of a potential cure for HIV is underway. The scientists involved hope for the first results by November. One of them also has stark warnings about the threat to humanity from future pandemics. He thinks that, as seen with HIV and monkeypox, gay men could be the “canary in the coal mine”.

Dr. Marcus A. Conant is a consultant dermatologist whose career predates the first cases of AIDS in the United States. He is now the medical director of the biotechnology company American Gene Technologies (AGT). He has been working for a few years on a revolutionary cure for HIV.

Rather than drugs, AGT uses gene technology to boost the ability of the body’s own immune cells to fight HIV.

A small number of individuals are genetically resistant to the effects of HIV. There are cases where people living with HIV have had bone marrow transplants and inherited immune cells resistant to the genes of those people. It cured them of HIV.

However, a bone marrow transplant is a risky procedure. Doctors only consider it when a person is fighting a late-stage blood-related cancer, such as leukemia. It is not a practical, widespread treatment for HIV when there are already drugs for the disease.

Instead, AGT wants to use gene technology to produce the same effect. Its process involves removing certain white blood cells from an HIV-positive patient and then inserting a gene that changes them. This allows the cells to stop HIV replication.

Using gene therapy as a potential cure for HIV

Hundreds of thousands of HIV-resistant CD4 T cells are then injected back into the patient, where they can replicate and hopefully fight off HIV.

In 2020, the FDA cleared AGT to start a trial involving seven patients. These patients received their own genetically modified T cells (AGT103-T).

None experienced any negative side effects from the infusion, meaning the trial has now moved on to its next stage. Each patient had their antiretroviral treatment stopped. They are closely monitored to see if their viral load remains undetectable.

Related: New Study Says HIV Has a ‘Significant’ Impact on the Aging Process

Dr Conant is unable to give Weird a preview of the test results when we reach him by phone. It was kept secret until later this year. However, he says he and his team are already planning a larger trial.

Dr. Marcus Conant is working to find a cure for HIV
Dr Marcus Conant is working to find a cure for HIV (Picture: AGT)

“That’s what science has always done,” he explains. “You ask, ‘Well, which part works? Why do we think it works? And how can we make it work better? »

“When AZT came out in 1987, it did very little work. We were able to demonstrate that it barely prolonged patients’ lives.

“Now here we are 30 years later, with drugs that can suppress the virus essentially to levels so low that patients can have unprotected sex and not transmit the virus. This is incredible progress. But we got there by asking ourselves, “What can we do to make it work better?” »

“So now there will be another study, probably in 30-50 patients. My staff and I are designing that study as we speak, to learn from that and treat more patients. We’re going to tweak it to make it even better. “

The cure for HIV has eluded science for more than four decades

Gene therapy has been used to treat several diseases over the past 20 years. This includes severe combined immunodeficiency syndrome (SCID) and the eye condition, retinitis pygmantosa.

However, this is the first time it has been used as a potential treatment for HIV. If it works, it would be revolutionary.

HIV virus particles
HIV (in green) on an immune cell (Photo: CDC/Public Domain)

HIV has proven stubbornly resistant to a cure. It’s something that Conant is all too aware of. He has worked in the field since the early 1980s. As a dermatologist, he saw some of the first cases of men with Kaposi’s sarcoma (KS) – one of the few cancers that became the hallmark of AIDS before treatment is not available.

Conant was a junior professor at UC San Francisco in 1981. He still vividly remembers seeing his first case of KS in April of that year. It took a few months before the CDC issued its first public warning about a disease affecting gay men.

Related: Makers of HIV treatment file once every six months for FDA approval

HIV, monkeypox and the threat of new pandemics

Due to his experience with HIV, Conant said he felt a sense of déjà vu when he heard about this year’s monkeypox outbreak. Cases in the United States have now exceeded 23,000 and the majority are gay men.

Conant says the world needs to be better prepared for such outbreaks.

“The first thing you see in any epidemic is denial: ‘This can’t happen to us.’

“The second thing you always see is: someone to blame. And that’s exactly what we’ve seen with HIV/AIDS. And that’s exactly what we’re seeing now with monkeypox: ‘Oh , these gays, if they weren’t so promiscuous, the disease would never have happened.”

Nope“, he says. “Illness was coming. It just happened in a special group first. Instead of people blaming the gay community, they should realize that this is an opportunity to realize that we’re going to have more and more of these zoonotic diseases, which jump from animals to humans.

“The gay community may well be the first group in which we see this, or in which we frequently see it for the first time.

“Why so? Because gay men have the ability to travel much more frequently than their straight brothers who raise kids and stay home and don’t have the luxury of being able to take it anytime and go to a party in Spain.

“So this all sounds a lot like the canary in the coal mine. What is happening in the gay community is a warning to society: “We have a problem here.

“Over the past 40 years we’ve had HIV, you’ve had Ebola, you’ve had Zika, you’ve had Covid, and now monkeypox. It’s five over the top in my lifetime alone, and it’s going to continue because people are traveling more.

Conant agrees with other scientists who say global warming will increase the likelihood of pandemics. Rising temperatures cause viruses to spread out of their previous habitats.

International Solutions to Global Epidemics

Conant wants to see a much more international solution to epidemics, rather than countries just doing their own thing. After all, viruses do not respect borders.

He also believes governments need to do more to allow individuals to self-isolate if necessary.

“They say to homosexuals who have the disease, ‘Well, go home and isolate yourself.’ In America, a gay man cannot go home and isolate himself,” he says.

“Of course you can order all your food, but if he has no income, maybe he can order the food for a week and then he runs out of money. We don’t have the infrastructure in place that makes ‘going home and self-isolating’ a practical solution.

“If we don’t find a way to manage these diseases, we face a potential catastrophe,” he continues. Both Covid and monkeypox have a relatively low death rate. He warns that if a disease occurs and kills – say – 40% of the people who contract it, “we are going to see societies collapse”.

“We should have learned from AIDS,” says Conant. “Forty years ago, AIDS was the first real clear warning that ‘hey, we need better policies to deal with issues like this’, and we haven’t learned anything. And here we are, after one illness after another, and we respond to each one as if it were a once-in-a-lifetime situation and would never happen again.

David Hudson is an editor at Queerty. Follow him on Twitter at @davidhudson_uk

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