By Kambiz Shekdar, Ph.D.
Will Smith’s slap at the Oscars is said to have been heard around the world. We’re not advocating that anyone slap anyone, but living with AIDS has become like a rut, and a collaboration of artists and scientists including myself created an animated short, “It’s About Love,” in the hopes that it might provide the slap that would be heard across the AIDS world. (Avid readers of this newspaper will know our publisher George Capsis was once driven to slapping too!)
Talking about diseases like AIDS is not a hot topic. I’ve written about AIDS and contemporary efforts to develop a globally accessible cure in this newspaper every month for about three years now. I believe my articles provide a small number of interested readers with unique insights about this topic from my perspective as a gay man, scientist, and president of an AIDS not-for-profit organization, but they certainly haven’t made waves. This article may not get a lot of attention either, but I decided to try something new, based on the tactics of former AIDS activists.
Over time, activists and artists have used many different methods to make sure information about AIDS has been seen and heard. The iconic “Silence = Death” poster was just one of many graphic and arresting images. Another example of breaking through to people was a zine called Disease Pariah News. According to Wikipedia, it “used black humor and shock humor to address many of the issues that affected people who had been diagnosed with HIV or AIDS. While the publication dealt with issues related to having HIV/AIDS in a humorous, if dark, manner, many of the articles contained factual information about managing and living with the disease.”
Disease Pariah Network used controversy to bring attention to topics not enough people were otherwise talking about. Ryan Downes, Robert Galinsky, and I created “It’s About Love” for similar reasons: although successful stem cell treatments for AIDS have been demonstrated for over 15 years, not enough people are aware of them, and there is still no national or global movement to further develop and perfect a cure. Will we meet our goal? We hope you catch our video at this link and share it: https://youtu.be/WyYhdOgSlls.
One critical center of inertia is the government funding landscape for breakthrough science. Government is not normally known for speed and innovation, yet after witnessing Dr. Fauci and colleagues at NIH, CDC, FDA, BARDA, DoD, and other government agencies (endorsed by the White House) work wonders to help achieve COVID vaccines, one might assume bureaucracies tasked with supporting innovation run like clockwork. Unfortunately, they don’t. What we witnessed regarding the COVID vaccine was an unprecedented exception to the rule.
As stated by The Institute for Venture Science, a think-tank that aims to improve the situation, “The institutional vetting process also contributes to the dearth of breakthroughs. To review grant proposals, science administrators seek the most established scientific leaders, i.e., the leading proponents of the status quo. Any applicants challenging the views of those leaders rarely succeed, and therefore, existing paradigms persist even if inadequate.” The late Nobel laureate Luc Montagnier, discoverer of the HIV virus, was one supporter of the Institute.
Imagine the AIDS research field as if it’s the NFL: everyone playing terrific football. Now imagine that developing a cure requires that tennis players and their skills are added to the mix. That process of expanding the NFL to include tennis players would be complicated to say the least. Currently, although the AIDS research establishment—the “AIDS NFL”—is filled with experts who have given us life-saving AIDS medications, chemical anti-viral drugs that attack the virus, only stem cells have been demonstrated to cure AIDS. To perfect a cure, the AIDS NFL must be expanded to include new players in its mix. To learn more, go to: westviewnews.org/2022/04/03/worlds-third-aids-patient-cured/web-admin/.
To his credit, Dr. Fauci and colleagues at NIH and Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation did announce an initiative to prioritize the development of globally accessible cures for HIV/AIDS and Sickle Cell Disease. Unfortunately, that accouchement came in late October of 2019, just weeks before the COVID pandemic emerged and derailed the best laid plans. It is not yet clear whether the full intended force of the cure initiative is back on track. To date, the NIAID at NIH has issued at least one call soliciting research proposals specifically focusing on curing AIDS. Much more along these lines can and must be done.
“It’s About Love” includes a (fictional) video by Dr. Fauci explaining how stem cells have been used to cure the first three patients ever, and the cellular technologies that hold promise to increase the efficiency and applicability of the process. For full disclosure, I am the inventor of one of these technologies, which my colleagues and I licensed on a worldwide royalty-free basis to Research Foundation to Cure AIDS to develop a cure for all those in need regardless of ability to pay. Note that any endorsement by Dr. Fauci, that may be suggested by or inferred from this video and its contents, is purely satirical and fictional.
The animation also includes a cameo by the late AIDS Activist Larry Kramer, reciting his last televised statement as a delegate during CNN’s LGBT Presidential Townhall in Oct 2019: “AIDS is the gift that keeps on giving—to big pharma and the insurance industry. Truvada and similar prophylactic treatments are not cures for HIV. Pharmaceutical companies profit irrationally from HIV-positive Americans who depend on the medications forever. As president, how would you finance a cure and scale back the avarice of pharmaceutical companies?”
That same question can be directed to each of us who cares about advancing science, global health equity, and the health of Black and LGBTQ communities.
Rockefeller University alumnus and biotech inventor Kambiz Shekdar, Ph.D., is the president of Research Foundation to Cure AIDS and the science & LGBTQ editor at WestView News. To support RFTCA, go to https://rftca.org/. Ryan Downes is a freelance animator/motion graphics artist based in Los Angeles. To see more, go to https://www.rdownes.com or @slapdash.media on Instagram. Robert Galinsky is a poet, voice artist, and host of many local monthly arts and volunteer events. To learn more, email firstname.lastname@example.org. The Slap That Cured the World is a new animated short that aims to draw attention to the need to jump-start a globally accessible cure for AIDS. Photo credit: Ryan Downes.