The Scientist and the Cure
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a shelf in one of Giorgi's labs is a collection of thick blue notebooks.
They date to 1984, when she and her colleagues began drawing blood
samples from 1,637 gay men. Filled with pages of T-cell counts and
other measures, they record the sobering history of the AIDS epidemic.
Of the 962 men who were infected, 584 have died of AIDS, 27 of other
causes. Some 351 remain, as well as hundreds of uninfected men still
involved in the study. For Giorgi, their cellular histories have
provided crucial insights into HIV.
research focuses on understanding the specific function of immune
cells and how they protect against HIV. This is not a straightforward
task. The immune system is extremely complicated; in defending against
disease, it has an amazing ability to distinguish between which
invaders are a mere nuisance and essentially harmless and which
are potentially lethal. In HIV, the immune system relies on various
T-cells, including CD4, so-called helper T-cells, to fight the virus.
It also provokes the activity of CD8 cells, or killer T-cells, which
attack HIV and produce agents that prevent the virus from replicating.
The importance of these killer cells in the immune system's war
against HIV can't be overstated. As one of Giorgi's colleagues once
remarked, "Without CD8 cells, we're toast."
most AIDS researchers were focused on the virus itself, Giorgi believed
the immune system held vital clues to protection against HIV. Some
individuals, for example, become sick and die within months of infection,
but most people can live with the virus for 10 years before their
immune systems finally collapse. And a small number of people, despite
repeated exposures to HIV, have yet to become ill even after 20
this pattern, Giorgi was intrigued. What was making the difference?
At the time, searching for clues in the immune system wasn't a conventional
approach. The money and glamour in AIDS was concentrated in virology,
not in the quagmire of immunology. But Giorgi didn't much care about
conventional approaches. Using the state-of-the-art process of flow
cytometry, which sorts and counts cells with remarkable precision,
Giorgi was able to show that CD8 cells were a potent force in protection
against the virus. It was a landmark discovery.