Virology and the Laws of War

Iain MacLeod

By Martha Henry

What do chemical warfare and AIDS research have in common? Both are subjects that Dr. Iain MacLeod, a research fellow in the Essex Lab, has studied extensively.

Iain was born in Glasgow, Scotland in 1982. He received his undergraduate degree in virology. “Viruses seemed pretty cool,” Iain explained. “They’re responsible for world-wide epidemics, yet they’re not alive. Basically they’re just bits of DNA or RNA packaged around protein. Why should something that’s essentially non-complex cause such a wide range of diseases?”

Before beginning work on his PhD, Iain earned an LLM, focusing on international criminal law. For his thesis, he combined his knowledge of biology and the laws of war. He wrote about how international law has evolved to keep pace with the improvements in biological and chemical weapons science. Then it was back to virology.

Iain worked in a lab in Nairobi, Kenya, looking at how HIV is transmitted from mothers to infants through breast milk. He went on to receive his PhD in pathology from the University of Cambridge in 2007. While working towards his PhD, he did part-time legal research, working on a draft convention to criminalize biological and chemical weapons at the individual level. At the moment, international law only covers activities of a country, not, for example, an individual such as a president or general who would give the order to use a chemical weapon.

After Cambridge, Iain was interested in HIV research with an international perspective. Coming to work with Prof.Max Essex, Chair of the Harvard AIDS Initiative, seemed liked an excellent fit. Iain arrived in Boston last fall. He and Dr. Chris Rowley have been looking at HIV infected infants who have developed drug resistance. Iain is also trying to identify why HIV-1C, the subtype of HIV most prevalent in southern Africa, is able to infect hematopoetic stem cells, which can lead to anemia.

While in Boston, Iain has kept his legal research skills sharp by helping to write a paper on white phosphorus and the laws of war. White phosphorus is often used to create a smoke screen, but it can also cause extensive burning. Iain coauthored a recently published paper that examines at what point white phosphorus crosses the line from being a chemical allowed on the battlefield to becoming a chemical weapon.

Keeping true to his desire to work internationally, Iain will leave for Botswana this fall to conduct HIV/AIDS research at the Botswana–Harvard Partnership (BHP).