A Chat With the Man Who Discovered AIDS

Nov. 20, 2015

Michael Gottlieb, M.D.

University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry alumnus Michael Gottlieb, M.D., associate clinical professor of Medicine at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, visited Rochester this week to recount the tale of his discovery of acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS) in 1981. At an event held Thursday night, Gottlieb described the first AIDS patient to come under his care at UCLA. The patient was diagnosed with a rare form of pneumonia that only infects people with very weak immune systems, such as those receiving radiation or chemotherapy. However, there was no apparent reason for this patient to have such a severely suppressed immune system.


“This was a seriously ill patient and I thought, at the time, that he might be one of a kind – that I would never see another patient like this. In the next two or three months, three more patients were referred… all with classical presentations of AIDS as we know it today”, said Gottlieb.

When Gottlieb and his associates analyzed blood samples from these four patients, a type of cell that is essential for the immune system to work was almost completely missing. This was a new and shocking finding. The team published the first description of what is now known as AIDS shortly thereafter.

Gottlieb’s June 5, 1981 publication in Morbidity and Mortality Weekly Report is still used by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention to mark the beginning of the AIDS epidemic. However, it is now believed that AIDS and the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS probably existed in North America long before Gottlieb reported his findings. 

Gottlieb later treated Rock Hudson for HIV, and credits the famous 1950’s and ‘60’s actor with setting a milestone in the epidemic. Announcement of Hudson’s diagnosis brought the thousands of patients who had already been diagnosed with HIV/AIDS to the public eye and spurred a new era of federal funding for research.

Now, more than 30 years later, many important advances allow HIV patients to live full lives with minimal risk of passing the infection to others. These facts have eased the public’s collective mind, but Gottlieb is quick to remind us that HIV and AIDS are still a significant health issue in the U.S. and around the world.

Gottlieb urged all in attendance to observe World AIDS Day on December 1. “World AIDS Day is the one day every year that the population of the world thinks about HIV and AIDS,” says Gottlieb. 

Gottlieb’s talk was followed by a panel discussion about HIV/AIDS research happening at the University of Rochester Medical Center, research that Gottlieb believes “promises major new advances in HIV care”.


Stephen Dewhurst, Ph.D., vice dean of research and director of the University of Rochester Center for AIDS Research, and Michael Keefer, M.D., director of the University’s HIV Vaccine Trials Unit, discussed plans for a clinical trial of a new vaccine approach that uses antibodies that can attack a wide range of viral strains in hopes of preventing HIV infection in high-risk populations.

Harris Gelbard, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Neural Development and Disease, discussed the neurodegenerative aspects of HIV, which has become a pressing issue with patients living longer with the infection. His work focuses on a “chemical vaccine” to rid the brain of inflammation caused by HIV. This, he contends, will prevent neurodegeneration and allow the brain to function normally.

Amneris Luque, M.D., director of the AIDS Center at URMC, discussed her research on the negative effects of HIV and current HIV therapies on cardiovascular health.


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