Since the joining together of two women powerhouses—actress Elizabeth Taylor and scientific researcher Dr. Mathilde Krim—to create the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) in 1985, Hollywood celebrities and the rich and famous from fashion, music and the arts have enjoyed grand events that raise money to fight HIV/AIDS.
Sometimes it seems the party’s the thing, with dinner chatter drowning out the event’s raison d’etre. No matter, the money’s still good. Since 1985, amfAR has invested $480 million in research programs and awarded more than 3,300 grants—and the Oct. 13 gala honoring actress Julia Roberts at the Green Acres Estate of activist philanthropist Ron Burkle pulled in more than $2 million. That brings to $13 million amfAR has raised in the eight years of its annual LA gala.
Some of that $2 million will no doubt go to the $100 million amfAR has committed to its three-year old initiative, Countdown to a Cure for AIDS. Unfortunately, Dr. Krim was too frail to travel to the LA gala or she would have certainly expounded on how a cure may actually be in sight. amfAR notes on its website that last July, the Food and Drug Administration finally approved a gene therapy-based treatment in the US.
“The treatment, first developed by Dr. Carl June of the University of Pennsylvania, a member of amfAR’s Cure Council, is based on the use of so-called CAR cells to kill cancer cells,” amfar reports. “On July 13, amfAR announced two new grants to (Los Angeles area-based) research teams pursuing similar strategies involving CAR (chimeric antigen receptor) cells, which have shown significant potential for their ability to kill HIV-infected cells. The grants are part of a new round of seven awards totaling $2.3 million in support of gene therapy-based approaches to curing HIV.”
“Curing HIV is no longer a pipe dream, and the case of ‘the Berlin patient’ provides proof-of-principle that a cure is possible,” said amfAR Chief Executive Officer Kevin Robert Frost, referring to the only person known to have been cured of HIV. “However, several complex scientific challenges remain, and these new grants reflect amfAR’s determination to pursue a range of strategies to overcome them.”
The event was emceed by popular TV host James Corden, with performances by Chris Martin and Fergie. Longtime amfAR supporter and proud gay dad Cheyenne Jackson introduced amfAR Board Chair Kenneth Cole, who talked about the recent devastation caused by the series of hurricanes, the Nevada mass shooting, and California’s wildfires.
“So much loss and so much suffering—most of it out of our control,” Cole said. “But tonight we can at least feel encouraged by knowing we are working together to address a crisis that we are doing something about. With your support, we are getting closer every day to a cure for a chronic condition that has already taken 35 million lives.”
Cole introduced Tom Hanks, who won an Oscar for his deeply moving and impactful performance 25 years ago of a lawyer with AIDS fighting against the firm that fired him in the movie “Philadelphia.” Hanks gushed over Roberts, presenting her with amfAR Award of Courage. Roberts played Dr. Emma Brookner in Ryan Murphy’s acclaimed 2014 television adaptation of Larry Kramer’s award-winning AIDS play, The Normal Heart, about the early days of the epidemic. In addition to supporting amfAR, Roberts is a longtime supporter of the (PRODUCT) RED campaign, a unique coalition of activists, celebrities and business that produce branded RED products, with proceeds going to the Global Fund to Fight AIDS, Tuberculosis and Malaria.
Roberts called the stemming of AIDS-related deaths a “tipping point,” giving her courage. “If we don’t take our foot off the gas – by 2020 we could ensure that no children will be born with HIV anymore, becoming the first HIV-free generation!”
In addition to funding scientific research, amfAR continues to work towards AIDS prevention with programs such as EPIC VOICES, featuring, among others, Ryan Palao, better known as Ongina, a star drag performer from season 1 of RuPaul’s Drag Race. After winning an award on the show, Ongina emotionally came out as being HIV positive. Since then, Ongina has used her fame to be an advocate for equality, people with HIV/AIDS and trans rights.
Palao tells the Los Angeles Blade he was infected during a “random hook up” in New York City in 2006 at age 24. He “trusted” the guy. “The biggest mistake we make is we get involved with people sexually and we forget to use protection and be smart,” he says. Working with amfAR, he hopes to use his own story to raise awareness with the younger generation, with millennials for whom this is “no longer a serious issue.”
Check out the LosAngelesBlade.com (later this week) to read about Ryan Palao/Ongina’s experiences at the amfAR LA gala, including being invited onstage by Fergi!