Remembering a hero of the struggle against HIV/AIDS

December 1st is World AIDS Day, dedicated to raising awareness of the worldwide AIDS pandemic, to support people living with HIV/AIDS and to commemorate those who died.

The disease has claimed over 25 million lives.  Worldwide, over 33 million people are now living with HIV/AIDS.

This year marks the 30th anniversary of the first report of the disease, published in the CDC’s Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report of June 5, 1981. By 1984 scientists had isolated the virus that caused the disease – human immunodeficiency virus, HIV.

It was a terrifying and frustrating time.  A diagnosis was considered a death sentence.  There were few treatments and little hope.   “All our patients died – 100 percent,” said one clinician about the era.

In 1985 the first diagnostic test was licensed and in 1987 AZT, the first anti-HIV drug, was approved. Over the past two decades, scientific progress in developing new treatments has been steady as dozens of new drugs were developed and several new methods of prevention were proven to be effective.

Jeff Getty – a hero of the fight against HIV/AIDS

In a bold experiment in 1995, Jeff Getty, a prominent HIV/AIDS activist and research advocate, received the first bone marrow transplant from a baboon.  The hope was that the animal’s natural resistance to HIV-1 would develop in his system.

I’m going to die anyway,” Jeff told a reporter. “Let’s get on with finding some answers about the disease.  If this saves me, then I got lucky.”

Despite approval by the FDA after extensive deliberation, many researchers had concerns about the procedure.  The physician who carried out the marrow transplant, Steven Deeks, an HIV/AIDS researcher at UCSF acknowledged, “We have been accused of being desperate, and to some extent we are,” he said. “We’re seeing people die every day and the therapies that are currently available and those that are predicted to be available over the next several years aren’t going to substantially slow that down.”

Ultimately, the baboon cells did not engraft, but Jeff’s health improved greatly.  His doctors thought some treatments, including radiation and chemotherapy, that he received in preparation for the transplant, were likely responsible for his upswing. Jeff felt the procedure ‘bought some time’ – and indeed, he lived long enough to benefit from another novel treatment he was receiving at the time: combination antiviral therapy.

The development from the mid-1990’s of the first generations of antiviral drug combinations known as Highly Active Anti-Retroviral Therapy (HAART) was a breakthrough  that was to have a profound effect on the prognosis for HIV positive people, and was spurred by the arrival of HIV protease inhibitors, whose development depended in part on animal studies.

Jeff lived with HIV/AIDS for a total of 26 years, until October, 2006 when he died of heart failure.

While he was recovering in San Francisco General Hospital in December 1995 after the transplant, Jeff received a number of death threats from animal rights activists.  Jeff perceived PETA and other animal rights groups that opposed the use of laboratory animals as a direct threat to AIDS research.  He was not wrong: at the time PeTA had allied itself with ACT UP San Francisco* a malevolent organization that embraced HIV/AIDS denialism and attacked both HIV/AIDS researchers and other AIDS activists, including Jeff.

The following June, Jeff travelled to Washington DC  to work with Americans for Medical Progress in effectively speaking out against PETA’s anti-research stance, and the hypocrisy of Hollywood celebrities who supported PETA while wearing red ribbons in support of HIV/AIDS research.

He wrote the following commentary for the Wall Street Journal during that visit, and we reprint it in his honor on this World AIDS Day.

Sadly, while the options for successfully treating HIV/AIDS have improved dramatically since 1995 thanks to the efforts of scientists and of activists like Jeff, the animal rights anti-research agenda remains unchanged.


by Jeff Getty
The Wall Street Journal, June 13, 1996

Without animal research there will be no cure for AIDS. My life and the lives of millions of people with HIV/AIDS depend on scientists working with animals to develop new therapies.

Every single drug we are taking right now to stay alive until a cure is found has come about only because of animal research. Yet the advocacy group People for the Ethical Treatment for Animals (PETA) says it would oppose any cure for AIDS that involved research with animals.

Such extremists do not simply make animal research a matter of polite debate. One need not look far to find people with HIV or AIDS who have been targeted by the animal rights zealots. When I was fighting for my life in the hospital this winter, I received death wishes from so-called animal lovers. Cleve Jones, founder of the Names Project, received death threats after being a grand marshal for a gay rodeo. Peter Stahley of Treatment Action Group recently said that PETA is a direct threat to his life. He is right.

Using tactics of distortion, intimidation, harassment and in some cases even violence, animal rights extremists have effectively delayed significant AIDS research. Here are some examples:

  • AIDS researchers at Stanford University in California were forced to build labs and complexes underground following attacks on university property carried out in the name of animal rights. According to one researcher there, the violent tactics of the animal rights fanatics’ violent tactics have added great costs to AIDS research, slowed certain projects and blocked other AIDS experiments from happening altogether due to high costs.
  • Recently, a prominent immunologist in the Northeast who is researching important immune restoration therapies for people with AIDS said that the biggest obstacle to his research was over-restrictive animal rights laws. In his research, this AIDS scientist is transplanting thymus tissue from infants to adults. After transplants are performed on animals, researchers are prohibited from conductnig further biopsies on any of these animals. On the other hand, human study subjects can and will receive biopsies over and over, as needed.
  • An animal rights group’s complaint to the National Institute of Health (NIH) about the appropriateness of the xenotransplant I received in December led to an expensive, time consuming paper chase for researchers. The NIH responded that there was no wrongdoing and that the experiment was approved to move forward. This bogus complaint caused people with AIDS needless waste of time and money.
  • The Progressive Animal Welfare Society, an animal rights group, targeted a Washington State researcher and successfully shut down, for a time, research involving mother-to-child transmission of simian immunodeficiency virus among macaque monkeys. This work later turned out to be the foundation for treatment of human newborns with AZT to block HIV. How many children are now needlessly dying of AIDS because information that could have prevented their disease was obstructed by animal rights extremists?

Certain Hollywood celebrities like to wear red AIDS ribbons while also supporting groups like PETA. It is time for the hypocrisy to end. You can’t be for AIDS, breast cancer and diabetes research and also support militant animal rights groups.

The only productive research approach is intensive, well-funded biomedical experimentation performed by scientists free to use animals in their work. Contrary to PETA’s rhetoric, computers have not replaced animals for drug safety testing and research. It will be many years before such a computer is ever programmed, simply because we now only dimly understand how the immune system works.

Meanwhile, animal rights groups continue to take donors’ money, promising to fight “for the animals.” In fact, their agenda is to stop all animal research forever, no matter what the human cost. Dan Mathews, an openly gay employee of PETA, has said publicly that he agrees with the group’s opposition to a cure for AIDS if it came through animal research. When asked about the fate of those currently dying of the disease, he said “Don’t get the disease in the first place, schmo.” Dan does not have AIDS, but he has shown that he has contempt for the men, women and children who do.

Many of the cures for diseases that are now long gone and out of the way came from animal research. If PETA had it way 50 years ago, we’d be talking today about hundreds of thousands of people dying from polio, as well as AIDS.

*ACT UP San Francisco should not be confused with the other groups within the ACT UP network who did much and more to raise awareness of the HIV/AIDS crisis, drive forward research on new therapies, and improve access to effective treatment.

Speaking of Research