an evolutionary cure for aids?
For the last few days, the web has been abuzz about an AIDS patient who might have been cured by a marrow transplant from someone immune to the virus. Scientists have known about HIV immunity for over a decade when they found that some people had a mutation which prevents the expression of the CCR5 gene and doesn’t build the receptors to which the AIDS virus attaches to begin the infection process. Obviously, it’s great news for medical research, but it’s also a display of evolution in action that casts doubt on one of the most controversial dogmas of religious fundamentalists in the United States.
First, let’s talk biology. A new mutation occurs in a few individuals. These individuals are now immune to a crippling disease and they pass on the genes that make them immune to their offspring. After hundreds of years of sexual selection, future humans may be immune to HIV. Of course the caveat is that the HIV virus also mutates and someday, a new batch of the virus could find another backdoor into our cells. But then it might be a very different organism with a different impact on our bodies, a different viral species if you will. Science teachers, take note. This is a perfect illustration of how a random mutation can have a far-reaching effect on life.
The CCR5 mutation also affects the religious domain. For decades, hardline fundamentalists claimed that HIV and AIDS were God’s punishment delivered to homosexuals for their sins. If God wanted to punish homosexuals, why would he allow us to start developing an immunity to his divine punishment? Across the world, homosexuals are about 3% of the total population which means that every parent has a 3% chance of a gay child. If the parent has HIV immunity, the child should as well. In the future, there will be a gay population with the CCR5 mutation and the HIV resistance it offers.
Also, if we were to accept the claim of social archconservatives that homosexuality is a choice rather than a genetic predisposition, then the potential pool of gays with immunity to the virus expands exponentially. If HIV is punishment from above, someone upstairs made a big goof by allowing the CCR5 gene to develop a deviation. Or maybe this punishment-minded ideology is at odds with science and what’s happening in the real world?
For decades we relied on antibiotics, vaccines and complex chemical cocktails to cure diseases and prevent their spread. Maybe this time, evolution will give us a hand with one of our biggest problems, both medically and ideologically.