Thursday, March 01, 2007

all the while I was alone, the past was close behind

I would have loved to do as chai did in her post, and as agk did in turn, and write a post in the voice of myself as an 8-year old, reflecting on my current self. I don't know if it's because I was such a sheltered child, if I have gone so awry, or if, simply, I'm a bit older than chai and agk, but I found it impossible. The 8-year old and I are complete strangers. The 8-year old would not believe who I am, where I am, what I am. And I would not know how to explain it to the 8-year old version of myself. I will say this- as an 8-year old, I spent very little time thinking about who I was going to grow up to be. This might sound rather dramatic, but I spent most of my time just hoping I would grow up. I spent my time confused and fascinated, and I suppose in that sense, the 8-year old and I do share something in common. But beyond that, I'm at a loss.

But it did get me thinking about age, and one thing I find absolutely profound about age. Which is change, of course.

But not wrinkles and aches and people coming in and out of your life. Because the changes that strike me squarely are the measurable ones- the things that go from being unknown to known. The things we collectively begin to understand. This always hits most closely to the jugular when it's related to research. Research, after all, is about a different time scale. It's about patience and faith in so many ways, and even then, it's so often fruitless.

And yet, every time it happens, this quantum leap where a hypothesis becomes a fact, I inevitably swoon. So, a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, when I used to work in the labs, I used to talk to a friend about a project he was working on, a project to treat HIV. The first anti-retrovirals were just being introduced on the market; AIDS was about to morph into a completely different disease than the life sentence it had been theretofore. But we didn't know that then. We just knew anti-retrovirals were going to offer some hope, but that they would not necessarily knock down HIV completely.

This was also before the days of mapping the entire Human Genome. But still, there was science, there were hypotheses, there was feeling around in the dark (even now, half of good research is feeling around in the dark). And here's what was cool about my friend's project. Researchers had discovered that there was a subset of high-risk individuals who were repeatedly exposed to HIV, but never contracted it. How could this be? HIV was proving to be very easily contracted through sex or sharing needles, so how could a certain subset just keep dodging the bullet? This triggered some interest in teasing out what was responsible for this resistance. And that led to the discovery of the CCR5 receptor.

The CCR5 receptor is recruited by HIV as its Benedict Arnold, a coreceptor that turns against you to let HIV into your cells. It turns out that a small subset of Europeans make a genetic variant of CCR5, called CCR5-D32, and it is this mutation that bestows them with an increased resistance to HIV infection. Now, that might seem like a breakthrough, i.e. ah you geeks figured it out, block CCR5, we've got a drug. But y'all, that was years ago, over a decade ago, the discovery of CCR-D32. And just because you can tease out this sort of thing in a single receptor, it doesn't always mean it will amount to any clinical benefit.

So, here it is 2007, and there's an article in the NYT reporting the first definitive evidence that a molecule that blocks the activity of the CCR5 receptor can knock out detection of HIV in patients who have failed other treatment cocktails. Now, there are still some fears about such drugs. It's always a little concerning as far as safety goes when a drug that's treating viruses is manipulating your machinery instead of the machinery of the virus.

For me, it's just sort of awe-inspiring, to be in some small part a witness to watching stories like this unfold. In a climate when so much demands immediacy, when we want to get spoilers for our favorite serials and we lose feeling for big news a week after it hits, there is something so compelling about a story that inches along like this. It's like a research-version of The Sopranos- you're frustrated, you're angry that there's such a long wait between seasons, but hell if you aren't pulled right into fascination when the next installment trickles out.

p.s. Happy Birthday to one of my favorite scientists and bloggers, Maitri- thanks to her, I am vexed when people cite "the devastation of Hurricane Katrina" as an example of the impact of global warming, and testily mutter, "the levees, b*tches." And a sort-of belated birthday shout-out to Abhi- thanks to him, I have resisted the urge to join in the astronaut-bashing that has been happening as of late.

No comments: