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HIV and the Naked Ape

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Although human DNA is 98% similar to that of the chimpanzee, the infections we catch are ~80% different. Some pathogens have co-evolved with the host since chimpanzees and hominids diverged, but most are serendipitous acquisitions that we have picked up as humans spread across the world. In fact, pandemic infections like smallpox and influenza only date from the last 12,000 years or so after we adopted settled farming communities and later developed large colonies known as cities. Does the history of infectious diseases help to predict future epidemics? I shall illustrate my story with examples of HIV and ectoparasites.


Robin Weiss is Professor of Viral Oncology at University College London. He gained a BSc in Zoology at UCL in 1961 and a PhD in 1969. He has spent most of his career studying retroviruses, contributing to the discovery of viral genomes inherited as Mendelian traits in host DNA . In the 1970s, he worked with Peter K Vogt in USA and at the Imperial Cancer Research Fund, London. From 1980-1989 he was Director of the Institute of Cancer Research, Royal Marsden Hospital, and he returned to UCL in 1999. Professor Weiss has pioneered aspects of our understanding of HIV and AIDS , particularly on the identification of CD4 as the HIV receptor and on the analysis of neutralizing antibodies. He has also conducted research on AIDS -associated malignancies, and on pig viruses in relation to xenotransplantation. He has been President of the British Association for Cancer Research and he is currently President of the Society for General Microbiology.

In 2007 Professor Weiss was awarded the prestigious Ernst Chain Award by Imperial College, in recognition of his pioneering work on HIV /AIDS. Robin Weiss is currently leading a $25 million international research consortium, funded by the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, in HIV vaccine discovery.

This talk is part of the Darwin College Lecture Series series.

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