AIDS researchers meet in Paris (13-16 July) for what the organizers call the year's most important scientific conference on the pandemic. The session will bring together leading AIDS investigators to focus on the plague in the developing world.
The conference is expected to bring together 6,000 participants for a look at new laboratory research and applied clinical science that could make a difference in a pandemic that has spread to more than 40 million people.
The session is being held under the auspices of the International AIDS Society and the French National Agency on AIDS Research. The director of the French agency and conference chair, Michel Kazatchkine, says AIDS researchers wanted such a meeting.
"It is a conference that the International AIDS Society felt that there was a need for, since the large international conferences, which take place every second year, are more of an advocacy conference now," he said. "The scientific community felt that there was a need for a specific forum for basic sciences and clinical scientists to meet."
According to Dr. Kazatchkine, the meeting will have a significant amount of new information on topics such as HIV treatments, reduction of mother-to-children transmission in developing countries, how the virus copies itself in people, and how it spreads in a population.
International AIDS Society President Josep Lange noted that almost 30 percent of the participants and much of the research come from developing countries.
"That makes this conference so special," he said. "If we look at the contributions that were sent to the conference, 37 percent of those come from Africa, which is unique and which is also very timely, given the fact that there is a lot of activity with regard to scaling up [increasing] access to anti-retroviral therapy [AIDS drugs] in developing countries."
A novel feature of the Paris AIDS conference will be debates over current research controversies. Is sex the leading cause of HIV transmission? How does long-term HIV treatment affect the risk of heart disease? Is periodic interruption of treatment better or worse for a patient? The U.S. government's top infectious disease expert, Anthony Fauci acknowledges that the sessions might initially lead to more questions than answers.
"The sessions will be used to highlight the specific areas in which there really is disagreement, perhaps to better inform future research to help answer those questions," he said. "So I see the debates as more of a crystallization of exactly what the differences and opinions mean, and can we do some studies in the future to actually resolve them?"
In addition to focusing on present research, the Paris AIDS conference will also look back at the impressive scientific advances in the 20 years since HIV was identified as the culprit virus. In this way, the meeting will commemorate that fundamental advance, with appearances by the two co-discoverers of the virus, Luc Montagnier of France and Robert Gallo of the United States. Dr. Fauci will deliver the retrospective, recalling also the discovery of effective drugs that suppress HIV, the development of blood tests to detect it, and increased knowledge of how the disease spreads in the body and the population.
He said the lessons learned from two decades of AIDS research can be applied to other epidemics.
"Keep an open mind. I think the experience we've had with the HIV-AIDS epidemic has fortified us in our capabilities and our resolve and how we approach other emerging and re-emerging diseases, everything from the appreciation that you are dealing with something new to appreciation to potential scope," Dr. Fauci said.
Major speakers at the Paris AIDS conference include former South African president Nelson Mandela, who will discuss expanding treatment to poor countries. Former Brazilian president Fernando Henrique Cardoso will talk about his country's revolutionary success in fighting AIDS.