SEATTLE - For much of his life Alan Aderem was torn between his passion as a political activist and his budding career in biology. He grew up in South Africa during apartheid and spent five years under house arrest for protesting the regime and the racial injustices he saw around him.
Thirty years later, with the world focused on South Africa as it hosts the World Cup, Aderem is watching intensely too. But now, as director of the Institute for Systems Biology in Seattle, another struggle consumes him – stopping HIV/AIDS, and its deadly combination with TB.
“I find it pretty sad that a virus is doing what apartheid wasn’t able to do,” he said.
South Africa has the highest number of people living with HIV in the world – nearly 6 million. Its effects are particularly acute among the poor and children made orphans by the disease. Tuberculosis is the leading cause of death for people with HIV/AIDS, and TB cases have skyrocketed in countries such as South Africa where drug-resistant strains have spread.
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In Seattle, Aderem, 56, has set his sights on developing an HIV vaccine.
The quest to conquer the virus has helped his own life come full-circle. Science has become a political act. .
Aderem remembers his mother, a doctor, making home visits into impoverished townships to treat people. She opposed the system of enforced segregation that gave preferential treatment to whites and permeated small-town life.
He started finding other young people who opposed apartheid . At age 16, after taking part in an anti-apartheid demonstration, he was arrested for the first time. .
Years later, while studying in Cape Town, Aderem began to organize and advise people living in the city’s squatters camps and helped found the General Workers Union.
He started living a double life. “I’d be out in the townships organizing and I’d be doing experiments,” he said.
In 1976, South Africa exploded after an uprising in Soweto, which led to unrest in Cape Town and elsewhere and violent police crackdowns. He was arrested again, then he was “banned,” or restricted from leaving his district and meeting with others, and finally put under house arrest.
He continued to work underground as an anti-apartheid organizer until 1980, when police busted a cell of the ANC that he belonged to . He finally left Africa and headed to England.
“I stayed until I could stay no longer,” he said. “I couldn’t go back. I was in exile. I was stuck.”
Switching gears to focus on his career in science, Aderem landed at The Rockefeller University in the early ’80s in New York as a postdoctoral fellow.
There he had a chance to work with Zan Cohn, a pioneer in a field called innate immunity. Aderem was interested in malaria, but Cohn advised him to work on the immune response to disease.
“He said diseases come and go … who knows in a few years time, some real scourge could emerge and you’ll be positioned to respond to that,” Aderem said. “And literally four years later, AIDS started to emerge."