Antioxidant Nutrients are Important in Slowing the Progression to AIDS from HIV Infection: The Discovery of HIV


by Richard A. Passwater, Ph.D.

It doesn't seem like too many years ago that we learned of a dreadful new and mysterious disease that threatened to wipe out mankind. Little was known about this new disease, except that it was rapidly spreading. Some projected that it would be killing us by the millions within a few years and bankrupting our health care system along the way. Fortunately, this hasn't happened, and a large part of the reason why it has not is due to Dr. Luc Montagnier of the Pasteur Institute in Paris. He and his colleagues discovered the cause of the disease we now call Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) and determined how it's transmitted.

AIDS was formally recognized as a new disease on June 5, 1981 when the Centers for Disease Control (CDC) reported that five Los Angeles men had developed an unexplained immune deficiency. It is characterized as the breakdown of the body's immune system due to the decrease of selected cells in the immune system. This decrease results in defects in immune function which then allows "opportunistic" infections that cannot infect people with healthy immune systems to readily infect and soon kill AIDS patients. During 1980, there were a few reports of certain diseases such as rare cancers and infections leading to quick "wasting" of the patient and rapid death. [1,2] There particularly was an increase in cases of Pneumocystis carinii pneumonia and herpes simplex. This was followed by an increase in the incidence of Kaposi's sarcoma.

The CDC established a task force led by Dr. James Curran to look for other cases, present and past, and to learn what they could about these alarming new reports. At that time, the earliest confirmed case they could find occurred in 1978. As the number of similar reports increased, they were recognized as a common disorder of the immune system in 1981. It was found that these patients had a depletion of certain white blood cells that play a critical role in defending the body against invading organisms. These cells were formerly called T4- helper lymphocytes, but now by international convention are called CD4 lymphocytes. (CD stands for cluster of differentiation markers.) Because immunology knowledge is rapidly expanding and terminology is perplexing and changing, a glossary for the relevant terms used in this discussion is provided in table 1.

Later investigation has identified several other immune changes, but the depletion of CD4 lymphocytes has been related to AIDS ever since its first description. With the dramatic reduction in number of CD4 lymphocytes, the ratio of CD4 to CD8 cells changes, which is often used as a marker of the disease progress.

Thanks to the research of Dr. Montagnier and his colleagues, the cause of this mysterious disease which behaved differently from normal viral or bacterial infections, was uncovered relatively quickly in 1983. [3] As a result, most of us don't have to worry about this disease and we don't give much thought to Dr. Montagnier's discovery. As an example, you can receive a blood transfusion today and not have to worry about Human Immune Deficiency Virus (HIV) which is the virus that causes AIDS, being transmitted to you in the blood you receive. The fact that a test had been developed to detect HIV in blood was a comforting thought to me when I needed blood a few years ago. Even those who are at high risk owe a huge "thank you" to Dr. Montagnier because his discovery of both HIV-1 and HIV-2 strains of the virus has led to protective preventive measures.

HIV is an unusual virus. It is a retrovirus which means that it reverses the normal pattern of replication. Its genetic material contains only RNA instead of DNA. Retroviruses depend on an enzyme called reverse transcriptase to use the genetic material in the white blood cells that they infect to make the proteins needed for the virus to survive. In essence, the HIV turns the white blood cell into a factory to churn out more HIV. HIV is also a lentivirus which means it produces a disease that is slow to develop. The structure of HIV is discussed in more detail in the November 1994 interview with Dr. Will Taylor. In essence, HIV is a spherical virus with several protein coats. The proteins (antigens) on the outside envelope allow HIV to attach to CD4 antigens and infect the T lymphocyte. (The CD4 glycoprotein becomes a receptor for HIV in certain differentiated T lymphocytes. See glossary for more details.)

Dr. Montagnier's discovery goes beyond the development of measures to prevent the transmission of AIDS. It provides a means to identify those who are infected and allow treatment at an early stage, it also provides a means to develop a protective vaccine and drugs to cure AIDS. Otherwise, we would still be in the dark while AIDS would be mysteriously spreading throughout the entire population, not just the high-risk groups. The fact that AIDS is being contained in developed countries by education and testing, while it is pandemic in developing counties, is a testament to the effect of Dr. Montagnier's discovery. By comparing earlier rates (e. g. 1988) of AIDS propagation to the actual recent rate, I estimate that Dr. Montagnier's discovery has saved more than two million lives worldwide and about 400,000 American lives already (see figure 1).

In the countries that have taken advantage of the knowledge provided by Dr. Montagnier's discovery, AIDS is under considerable control. In countries that have not implemented extensive public health measures based on Dr. Montagnier's discovery, AIDS is still a staggering pandemic. Poverty, lack of education and exploitation of women can be considered risk factors for AIDS, and these are common factors in many of the developing countries.

However, AIDS itself is only the tip of the iceberg of the HIV-infection. Perhaps you have seen the public service announcement on TV that jolts you with the fact that one in 250 Americans is HIV-positive! Estimates for future AIDS cases vary. In 1994, an expert panel predicted that there will be 30-to-40-million persons worldwide infected with HIV by the year 2000. Currently, there is wide agreement on an estimate that there were 13 million HIV-positive people worldwide in 1993, with about eight million of those being in Sub-Saharan Africa. In central Africa, 70-80 percent of hospital beds are occupied by AIDS patients. (In Africa, the transmission route of AIDS is different and the presenting symptoms are different from those in the U. S. This will be discussed later.) The estimate for North America was about one million, Western Europe about one-half million, Latin America and the Caribbean was about one-and-a-half million, and South/Southeast Asia about one-and-a-half million. The economic toll is also a factor with direct costs of AIDS estimated to be about $350 billion, and the indirect costs much higher.

Of those who have contracted HIV worldwide, more than two million had developed AIDS and died by mid-1993. Since the first reported cases in the U. S. in 1981, more than 402, 000 AIDS cases and more than 241,000 AIDS deaths had been reported through mid-1994. In comparison, in its worse year, 1952, the number of U. S. paralytic polio cases was about 21,000.

In November 1993, Drs. Linus Pauling and Raxit Jariwalla of the Linus Pauling Institute of Science and Medicine, and I had the privilege of lecturing to the Institute for Optimal Nutrition (ION) in London, along with several European scientists. After the ION lectures, Dr. Jariwalla and I were invited to speak at the Faculty of Medicine in Paris, standing on the same stones in the floor of the Grand Amphitheater that Louis Pasteur had given his lectures in the 1850s and 1860s as professor of chemistry and dean of the school of science. Dr. Jariwalla spoke on his research in slowing HIV replication with vitamin C and I spoke on antioxidants in the prevention of cancer and slowing the aging process. After the lectures, I visited the Pasteur Hospital and the Pasteur Institute to survey their research on AIDS. I missed Dr. Montagnier, who is the Head of the Department of AIDS and Retroviruses, at that time, as he was out of the Country, but I was able to meet with him on my next visit on May 3, 1995.

Dr. Montagnier was kind enough to bring me up to date on his continuing research and particularly his research on the role of antioxidant nutrients as a key part in slowing the progression of HIV infection to the AIDS stage. You may also be interested in learning of the research into the possible roles of antioxidant nutrients and plant extracts in slowing the progression to clinical AIDS. Dr. Montagnier has agreed to share part of our conversation with you.

For a more detailed discussion on this subject review Dr. Passwater's complete interview with the world renowned Dr. Luc Montagnier

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