The Single-Minded Professor

If you're wearing condoms for protection from AIDS -- or insisting your partner wear one -- there's something Peter Duesberg wants you to know: You're wasting your time.

Sure, prophylactics protect you from sexually transmitted diseases; it's just that AIDS isn't one of them, according to the molecular and cell biology professor at the University of California at Berkeley. In his book Inventing the AIDS Virus (Regnery Publishing, 1996) the German-born scientist claims that Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome is not caused by Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) and is therefore not sexually transmitted. AIDS, he believes, is caused by long-term use of recreational drugs such as cocaine, heroin, and nitrate inhalants. Habitual use of such drugs weakens the immune system. That's scientific fact. But Duesburg is claiming that drug use is the major cause of AIDS.

So exactly what is he smoking out there in Berkeley? That's what they're asking at the National Center for HIV, STD, and TB, a branch of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in Atlanta. While no one has attacked Duesberg specifically, a CDC release states: "A small group of scientists -- who are not working directly on HIV research -- have falsely argued that HIV is not the main cause of AIDS."

Duesberg isn't coming totally from left field. When he arrived in the United States in 1964 to complete a postdoctoral fellowship at UC-Berkeley, he was one of the first to study genetic mapping of retroviruses -- the class of virus into which HIV falls. But more than twenty years later, he's not doing himself any favors by vocalizing his theory; he's an outcast in the scientific community who has found it almost impossible to get already-scarce research funding.

Nearly all researchers in the U.S. maintain that, because it is common to all AIDS patients in high-risk groups, HIV infection is the cause of AIDS. The high-risk groups include homosexual men, babies born to infected mothers, transfusion recipients, intravenous drug users, and sexual partners of the HIV infected.

Duesberg argues, however, that most HIV tests measure levels of HIV antibodies (the body's natural virus-fighters), not the virus itself. Studies (conducted by scientists other than Duesberg) prove that the presence of viruses other than HIV produce positive HIV test results. These factors, among others, have led Duesberg to conclude that tests used to compile statistics proving HIV leads to AIDS are not reliable.

Since the discovery of HIV in the early '80s, not one bit of research has explained exactly how the virus leads to the breakdown of the immune system and the eventual diagnosis of AIDS. (During the last stage of AIDS, the immune system is so weak, the body quickly becomes the victim of killers like pneumonia and cancer.) Duesberg argues that until a cause-and-effect relationship is established between the presence of HIV and the diagnosis of AIDS, the door to other possibilities remains open.

Duesberg isn't the only researcher who has questioned the HIV-AIDS link. But he is the only one who's put forth his own theory, and he's a little too vocal for many people's tastes. Duesberg claims, in fact, that he's been blackballed from receiving the funding he needs to try to further prove his theory. In his estimation he's the counterculture scientist fighting the establishment.

Whether or not research grants are awarded typically depends upon a peer-review process, which calls for top researchers in a given field to evaluate a new research proposal. A review panel's stamp of approval weighs heavily in a corporation's or government body's decision to award a grant. To demonstrate just how ludicrous he thinks the peer-review process is, Duesberg applies it to the auto industry. "If Mercedes Benz came up with a design for a car that got double the gas mileage of existing models," he says, "what do you think Honda and General Motors would say if Mercedes asked them for approval to build it?

"That's a bit how it is," he continues, speaking from his UC-Berkeley office. "They [peers] will not give you money to prove them wrong -- to risk their careers, their companies, their postdocs, their big laboratories, and their awards."

So for now Duesberg remains in his Berkeley lab, conducting cancer experiments. He says he may go to Europe to pursue AIDS research, though he doesn't know when. He does know one thing for sure: "I'm not content to sit in cafes and talk about it [his theory] to intellectuals, to become a philosopher. Although I'm 61 now, it's a bit early to retire. There is still good to be done if this theory can be advanced somewhere."

-- John Ferri

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