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The Cure

Will Mark Zuckerberg's Money Actually End AIDS?


The social media mogul announced the world will be cured of all diseases in the next hundred years. 

Mark Zuckerberg and his wife, Priscilla Chan, think that within the next hundred years there will be a cure for all diseases. The couple just announced that their organization, the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, will contribute $3 billion towards making that dream a reality.

Is it possible the Zuckerbergs will find not only a cure for HIV and AIDS, but cancer, malaria and all forms of STIs within the next century? Many seem to think so.  

As far as HIV and AIDS go, antiretroviral therapy first came to the market nearly thirty years ago, but it was only in the mid-1990s that researchers realized combination therapy was necessary; and even more recently that drugs have been able to lower viral loads to undetectable levels. PrEP is still a baby, as it only received FDA approval  four years ago. 

Fusion reminded us the first true antibiotic (penicillin) was discovered by Alexander Fleming less than a hundred years ago (in 1928). And that was without all the technological advances we have today! And the Zuckerbergs aren’t the first ones to prophesize an end to diseases like HIV.

As Plus reported in 2011, the United States invested $70 million to find an HIV cure through a five-year program, which ended this year.  In 2013, President Obama spoke confidently about finding a cure for HIV and talked about pledging $100 million to the National Institute of Health to make that a reality. He even proposed matching contributions of partner countries up to $5 billion.

While countries like South Africa have expanded access to antiretroviral therapy for all HIV-positive citizens, the “cure” everyone seems to be hoping for — the one that would lead to a world where the disease itself would be gone (versus curative treatments supplied to a steady flow of newly diagnosed individuals) — certainly isn't on the horizon. But how close are we, actually, in reaching that goal? Has money been the only barrier to doing so? 

Zuckerberg pointed out in his speech, “our society today spends 50 times more treating people who are sick than we are trying to find cures so people don’t get sick in the first place.” 

Ridding the world of disease is a pretty bold statement to make, even for the Zuckerbergs. But recent breakthroughs, including the discovery of how HIV progresses to AIDS, have gotten us quite optimistic of what the future of cure research could looks like even in the next ten years.

Then again, it's worth noting that Zuckerberg's $100 million dollar attempt to fix public education didn't exactly reach the goal he'd anticipated. So maybe it’s not a matter of  how much money is thrown at a problem and more how that money is spent.

The social media mogul points out that heart disease, cancer, infectious disease and neurological disease are the four biggest killers. What we need, he says, is people who actually believe it’s possible, and then a research center where research can take place. Towards that goal, the couple has pledged a $600 million investment over ten years to create a "Biohub" that will work on developing new tools to measure and treat diseases.

Stationed at the University of California, San Francisco, the Biohub will focus on bringing in scientists and engineers to find new technology and bring in more funding for scientific breakthroughs. The first major project is to build what Zuckerberg calls a “cell atlas” of the human body, which will create a blueprint of all the different cell types and how they interact. This, combined with the research we already have, could mean a major leap in finding a cure. 

Whether or not Zuckerberg's approach will prove more successful than his foray into public education, only time will tell. But pulling in experts, centralizing knowledge, and supporting collaboration could certainly produce some scientific breakthroughs. Perhaps all we needed to find a cure was a “poke” in the right direction — or an unlimited budget.

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David Artavia