Aaron Diamond Foundation Unmasks HIV’s Weak Spots

In 1985 the Aaron Diamond Foundation was founded in New York City to honor the eponymous real-estate developer, who passed away suddenly of a heart attack in 1983, by his wife Irene. When Irene and Aaron decided to give most of their assets to their foundation, they committed to blasting its funds out intensively within about a decade of either’s death, with the aim of making fast progress against targeted ills. When the funding of the foundation was all settled, one of the first places that Irene Diamond’s gaze settled was the alarming new AIDS epidemic that was just beginning to ravage her hometown of New York City.

HIV had been identified as the cause of AIDS in 1983, and early hopes for a vaccine, treatment, or cure for the disease faded quickly. The Diamond Foundation and other New York City funders felt that “an effort was necessary to bring the city closer to its level of responsibility as the epicenter of the AIDS epidemic in the United States.” So plans were laid for the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center, which opened in 1991 and immediately dove into high-level research under the direction of David Ho, a prominent microbiologist Irene Diamond selected to be director. By the time the foundation closed down at the end of 1996, it had invested $220 million and become the largest private supporter of AIDS research in the U.S.

The Diamond Center’s scientific accomplishments are legion. ADARC did some of the most important basic research at the molecular level on what made the AIDS virus so tenacious. The center identified a gene mutation that confers immunity to HIV. Diamond clinicians championed anti-retroviral “cocktails” that by combining medications were able to suppress HIV infection to undetectable levels. Combination therapy is expensive, though, and HIV’s ability to evade and adapt to immune defenses meant that a constant flow of improved and augmented cocktails was necessary, so ADARC researchers helped propel more than two dozen different drugs through the development pipeline. As a result, the death rate from HIV in America is now one fifth of what it was 20 years ago.

The center also did important work on prevention. Its major project in China, for instance, demonstrated that the rate of transmission of HIV from mothers to infants could be reduced from over 30 percent to less than 1 percent. Diamond researchers also pursued various HIV vaccination strategies right through the stage of clinical trials, including some work funded by the Gates Foundation using very innovative techniques.

Though never numbering more than about 75 researchers, its no-strings philanthropic funding gave the Diamond Center a nimbleness, speed, and tolerance for risk that allowed it to repeatedly precede and outperform government labs. By the time the Diamond funds were spent down, the center had developed a broad base of support. It remains the largest private AIDS research organization in the world, with a clinical relationship with Rockefeller University. In 1996, the year the Diamond Foundation closed, Time magazine selected ADARC’s director as its Man of the Year, in recognition of the center research that saved millions of lives.