AIDS is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus or HIV. This virus is a sphere with a coating of complex molecules. Its structure allows it to fit into corresponding molecules on the surface of immune system cells. Once inside these cells, it takes over their chemical mechanisms. It starts turning out strings of proteins, which then come together to form new viruses until the cell’s resources are exhausted. Under this attack the immune system eventually falters.
To fight AIDS we work to find a cure, or even better, immunity. The curative approach attempts to find a way to deal with the virus once it’s operating in our cells. Drugs like AZT block critical steps in the HIV life cycle. The immunity approach requires the development of a vaccine to stimulate antibody production to fight off the virus.
The big problem in all treatments is HIV’s rapid rate of mutation. Every virus that comes out of a cell is slightly different from the one that went in. It doesn’t take long for drug resistant viruses to appear in the blood. Like the common cold, the HIV virus changes so fast that it’s difficult to develop an effective vaccine.
So next time you hear about AIDS, remember that prevention is still the best way to beat it.