First detection and screening of the HIV virus

1985

Challenge

Early on in the acquired immunodeficiency syndrome (AIDS) epidemic, there was no way to test for the disease, and what we now know as the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) had not yet been identified as its cause. However, a mysterious third member of the human T-cell leukemia retrovirus family (HTLV-III) had been newly discovered in AIDS patients. The lack of a diagnostic test for the virus that causes AIDS meant that healthcare professionals had no way of screening blood products for the disease or knowing if they had been unintentionally infected.

Advance

IRP researchers led by William Blattner, M.D., and Robert Gallo, M.D., pioneered the use of an enzyme-linked immunosorbent assay (ELISA) to detect antibodies against HTLV-III and showed a positive correlation between HTLV-III antibodies and progression to AIDS. 

Impact

The new test’s high specificity and sensitivity meant that it quickly became the standard screening test for blood donors and populations at risk for AIDS. It was used to diagnose suspected AIDS cases and helped define the spectrum of diseases etiologically related to HTLV-III, later determined to be HIV.

Publications

Weiss SH, Goedert JJ, Sarngadharan MG, et al. (1985). Screening test for HTLV-III (AIDS agent) antibodies. Specificity, sensitivity, and applications. JAMA. 253(2):221-5.