Of men and monkeys

writing

(This post appeared on Nature Medicine’s Spoonful of Medicine blog on March 30, 2007. You can see the original post here.)

Sooty mangabey

I realize that my previous blog entry makes it sound as if HIV researchers are a complaining and bitter bunch. Far from it. They do complain, but they are also one of the friendliest and most unpretentious group of researchers anywhere. They can go from discussing how quickly HIV can wipe out the immune system to the latest in footwear and eyewear in a flash.

Last night was the finale of the HIV meeting — and may I just say, these scientists also know how to party.

Earlier in the week, bigwig HIV researcher Bruce Walker hosted his annual keystone bash. Here are a few things that should tell you it was a great party: there was much spilled drink; people sang Happy Birthday to Philip Goulder at midnight (it really was his birthday); everyone with a camera or cellphone snapped incriminating pictures of everyone else; one noted scientist was so falling down drunk that he really did fall down and had to be escorted home; and the police came — twice.

Last night’s was almost a repeat performance, but the police didn’t make an appearance — not that I know of anyway. In between their drunken revelry, these scientists also managed to put on one of the most interesting conferences I’ve ever been to. As per keystone rules, I can’t really write about the specifics, but among the topics I found most interesting were those that delved into why sooty mangabey monkeys infected with SIV, the monkey version of HIV, never progress to a disease like AIDS and on elite controllers, a group of people who, despite being infected with HIV for more than a decade, have undetectable levels of the virus in their blood.

Figuring out what protects the monkeys or the elite controllers could be the key to a good vaccine. And this week’s talks made me feel optimistic that at some point in my lifetime, even if not in the next 15 or 20 years, we’ll know the answer.

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