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Originally published Saturday, July 3, 2010 at 10:05 PM

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For Seattle biologist from South Africa, science is a political act

Alan Aderem's life has been marked by passion for what he does, first as a political activist in South Africa during apartheid and now as a leading biologist trying to stop HIV/AIDS and its frequent combination with TB.

Seattle Times business reporter

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. "It's extremely ironic that here in Africa's renaissance suddenly you've got a virus that is basically decimating the place. I feel both positive and discouraged at some level."

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 like South Africa, where drug-resistant strains have spread.

In Seattle, Aderem, 56, has set his sights on developing an HIV vaccine.

"That's the holy grail," he said.

The quest to conquer the virus has helped his own life come full circle. Science, for him, has become a political act.

In mother's footsteps

In many ways Aderem is following in the footsteps of his mother, Minnie, a doctor. He grew up in the countryside where she ran a practice that served mostly black patients. Aderem's father died when he was 9, so his mother had to support him, his brother and sister on her own.

He remembers his mother 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.

"In the corner stores, they even had a fence down the middle," Aderem said. "School was only for whites."

White kids grew up with black nannies, but around the age of 10, the relationship was expected to change and "suddenly they had to call you master," Aderem said. When that happened with his own nanny, "I couldn't figure it out," he said. "I had played with black boys all my life — her kids, I'd learned African languages from them. They, too, were suddenly inferior."

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"That's the first time I really realized what was going on," he said. "At that time I'd never even heard of [Nelson] Mandela," the leader of the African National Congress (ANC), who was imprisoned then and later became president.

"You could go to jail just for having an ANC flag," said Aderem, who now displays one in his Seattle office.

He started finding other young people who opposed the system. At age 16, after taking part in an anti-apartheid demonstration, he was arrested for the first time.

Aderem attended Rhodes University in the Eastern Cape, a region that was a center for a grass-roots movement called Black Consciousness, which sought to revive a sense of identity and self-worth among blacks.

Although there was no official connection at the time between the white and black student movements, one thing did bring them together — soccer.

In informal weekend matches, Aderem played with a charismatic young leader named Steve Biko, then a medical student in Durban, who went on to become a champion for the rights of black South Africans. He later died while in police custody.

"We got to know each other probably much, much better than we would ever if we had been politically connected," he said. "There's nothing like sweating and then going off to the shebeens [local township bars]" for a beer.

"We got more and more militant through our connection with these people."

When he returned to Cape Town to continue his studies, Aderem began to organize and advise people living in the city's squatters camps and helped found the General Workers Union.

"We figured out the country was running on black labor," he said. "That was the Achilles' heel."

Aderem befriended trade-union leader Oscar Mpetha, who became his political mentor and recruited him into the ANC.

Aderem 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.

"It was real gloves off at that point," Aderem said. He was arrested again, then he was "banned," or restricted from leaving his district and meeting with others, and finally put under house arrest.

Confinement had one tangible benefit — Aderem completed his doctorate in less than three years.

He continued to work underground as an anti-apartheid organizer, until 1980, when police busted a cell of the ANC that he belonged to, and friends warned him to leave. Neil Aggett, a close friend of his, died in detention. 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."

Focus on science

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."

When the AIDS quilt was displayed in Central Park, it had a profound impact on scientists. "All of us made up our minds that this was a disease we wanted to deal with," Aderem said.

At the same time, South Africa was finally becoming free. He went back to Cape Town and stood in front of City Hall to see Mandela after his release from prison. In 1994, while in New York, he voted in the country's first fully democratic election and later became a science adviser to the new government.

Always in the back of his mind was the question: Should I return?

Science, and his American wife and children, held sway. The Human Genome Project was under way, and Aderem was fascinated by the possibilities that it offered — a wealth of information for finding the genetic roots of disease and developing treatments.

Leroy Hood, a biologist who created the first gene-sequencing machine and a key leader in the project, was recruited to the University of Washington with funding from Microsoft Chairman Bill Gates to head a new Department of Molecular Biotechnology.

When Aderem met Hood, he realized they shared similar ideas. They both thought the key to cracking complex living organisms would integrate different disciplines such as biology, technology, medicine and computer science. In 1996, Aderem accepted a position at UW and joined Hood in Seattle.

He could teach his kids to sail in an environment that reminded him of Cape Town. And he liked the spirit of technology entrepreneurship.

"There were people here who had already changed the world once," he said. "The mindset was there."

Four years later, Hood, Aderem and Ruedi Aebersold co-founded the Institute for Systems Biology (ISB).

Aderem "personifies the passionate scientist," Hood said. "I think at least some of this passion reflects his early activist experiences in South Africa fighting apartheid.

"He is both driven to find the secret to effective vaccines ... and then to bringing these advances to South Africa."

Difficult task

Aderem compares HIV to "an arsonist setting fire to the firehouse."

What makes the task of developing a vaccine so difficult for scientists is that HIV mutates quickly and attacks the immune system, the very thing that needs boosting to fight off a virus.

In ISB's Seattle labs, Aderem and his colleagues are working on computer models of the immune system, which will allow them to predict whether a vaccine is likely to work and the possible side effects of new drugs.

Until last year, HIV vaccines had gone almost nowhere. In Thailand, the largest such vaccine trial ever done and the first to show effectiveness reduced the risk of contracting HIV by 31 percent. "I'm elated there was some protection," Aderem said. "It's been a long haul with not a lot of successes until now."

Aderem is taking his work back to Africa to start new HIV vaccine trials and to confront one of the most deadly effects of the virus co-infection with TB. A new international research center in South Africa was created to coordinate approaches, with Aderem as its chairman.

The KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for Tuberculosis and HIV will focus on making major scientific contributions to control the worldwide co-epidemic and train a new generation of scientists in Africa.

The institute is housed in Durban at the Nelson R. Mandela School of Medicine, a name that many could not have imagined 20 years ago when blacks were not even allowed to set foot on Durban's beaches. The country has made real progress since apartheid was abolished, but poverty and health remain huge challenges.

"It's a democratic society now," Aderem said. "For the majority of people there have been huge strides. In terms of their daily lives people have been empowered."

Aderem said he plans to increase efforts related to HIV, TB and malaria in his own lab.

"Personally I'm going to bring the full force of systems biology to bear on global health," he said.

Those early roots in South Africa continue to fuel his drive to succeed.

"For me it's political. For me it's basically coming home," he said. "I don't care what it takes to get a vaccine. I want a vaccine, and that is driven by what I know about Africa and the suffering there."

Kristi Heim: 206-464-2718 or kheim@seattletimes.com

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