Bacteria used to be the scourge of mankind, but scientists were eventually able to develop successful antibiotics because bacteria bear little resemblance to the human cells they infect. But viruses are altogether more insidious – they infect your cells and take over, microscopic impostors masquerading as your own tissue. How could you kill a virus without killing the infected cell too? When I was first studying virology in the 1980s, there was only one antiviral in existence, an anti-herpes drug called acyclovir discovered more or less by accident.
The real renaissance began in the late 1980s, when scientists finally worked out enough about viruses to design clever interventions capable of stopping virus replication without harming the patient’s own cells. The antiretroviral AZT (Zidovudine) was the first, and today we have dozens more. Few people who were sexually active when HIV first hit, or who live in fear of AIDS in the developing world now, would take for granted the miracle drugs that have turned HIV positivity from a death sentence into a manageable disease. The challenge now is to get antiretrovirals free to those in greatest need.
Jennifer L Rohn is a former molecular virologist and current editor of LabLit Magazine.