Courage and Commitment: Women of Science
For the last 30 years, women have played an integral role in HIV/AIDS research. Whether they’re discovering new insights into HIV, fortifying health systems, or pioneering novel ways to treat children living with HIV, female researchers have been essential to the global effort to achieve an AIDS-free generation. This Women’s History Month, join the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF) in saluting the women who have forged advances in HIV scientific research, care, and treatment.
DISCOVERING THE VIRUS
credit: The Guardian
In 1982, Françoise Barré-Sinoussi, Ph.D. and her colleagues at the Institut Pasteur in Paris were tasked with analyzing a lymph node biopsy and isolating the agent that was the cause of the new and rare condition called acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS). Barré-Sinoussi and her team hypothesized that the cause might be a virus, specifically a retrovirus similar to one they had previously identified. The team began studying the sample, and they looked for the presence of reverse transcriptase activity, the hallmark of a retrovirus. Ultimately, Barré-Sinoussi and her team had discovered the cause of AIDS.
They reported their findings the following year, but it took time and additional research to convince the scientific community at-large that the newly discovered retrovirus caused AIDS. Nevertheless, the discovery gave scientists a common genesis story for the source of AIDS and a firm starting point for subsequent research.
Isolating the retrovirus, now known as the Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), the virus that causes AIDS, opened the floodgates to more discoveries. Researchers began developing HIV tests and treatments, observed the disease progression in clinical trials, and began monitoring CD4 counts (an indicator of how much damage the virus had done). They created combination drug therapies to mitigate drug resistance and developed the first therapeutic approach to prevent mother-to-child transmission of HIV.
Most importantly, they saved millions of lives.
In 2008, Dr. Franciose Barré-Sinoussi received the Nobel Prize in Physiology or Medicine for the discovery of HIV. During her laureate acceptance speech, Dr. Barré-Sinoussi acknowledged that though researchers have discovered a great deal about HIV/AIDS, the mechanisms of infection are not entirely understood.
“In the absence of a cure for HIV, it is essential to continue investigating and promoting all prevention measures,” she said in her 2008 acceptance speech. “Although the road is still long, we are on the right path to achieve a world without AIDS."
Women Overcoming Treatment Barriers
Not only have women lead the way in honing our understanding of HIV/AIDS, they’ve also pioneered ways to overcome one of the biggest treatment obstacles – infrastructure. Elizabeth Glaser Scientist Grace Aldrovandi, M.D. sits at the helm of the Saban Research Institute’s International Maternal, Pediatric, Adolescent, AIDS Clinical Trials (IMPAACT) Network Laboratory Center. As the principal investigator and head of the lab center responsible for supporting all of the network’s clinical trials, Dr. Aldrovandi is uniquely positioned to identify and address the bottlenecks that prevent health workers from providing care and treatment to people living with HIV around the world.
In fact, the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) recently awarded Dr. Aldrovandi and the IMPAACT Network a $17 million grant to do just that -- create the global infrastructure necessary to scale up laboratory testing and scientific research.
In a statement following the announcement of the grant, Dr. Aldrovandi stressed that women, children, and adolescents continue to be vulnerable to HIV infection.
“Our work on optimizing the prevention, diagnosis, and treatment of HIV infection in these populations will benefit nations, communities and families throughout the world,” she said.
We cannot hope to create a world free of HIV without ensuring first that there are proper health systems in place to treat those currently living with the virus. Women like Dr. Grace Aldrovandi, along with hundreds of clinicians and researchers around the world are paving the way to stronger health systems that will improve care and treatment for the millions of people living with HIV around the world.
WOMEN PIONEERING A FUNCTIONAL CURE
In a single presentation at the 2013 Conference on Retroviruses and Infectious Diseases (CROI), Deborah Persaud, M.D., made the quest to find a cure for pediatric HIV a household topic.
Dr. Persaud, also an Elizabeth Glaser Scientist and a pediatric infectious disease specialist at The Johns Hopkins University, and her colleagues across the nation garnered international fame when they announced that an infant had been “functionally cured” of HIV.
The “Mississippi Baby” was treated with aggressive antiretroviral therapy (ART) within hours after birth. In the months that followed, clinicians continued to provide high doses of medication to the baby until suddenly, the mother stopped coming to the clinic.
When the mother later returned for treatment doctors were surprised to discover that, though she’d stopped giving the child ART, they were unable to find traces of the virus in her bloodstream. Her HIV appeared to be in remission.
Dr. Persaud and her team continue to test the baby, now a toddler, using highly sophisticated HIV screenings designed to detect trace amounts of the virus in the bloodstream. Her viral load remains undetectable.
The “Mississippi Baby” made headlines and reawakened the energy and curiosity of pediatric HIV researchers around the world. This March, Dr. Persaud presented a case similar to the Mississippi Baby at CROI 2014. This infant, born in Long Beach, Calif., was also treated with a high dose of ART within hours of birth. Time will tell if she too can be deemed “functionally cured.”
Although Dr. Persaud herself cautions that it is too early to hail the progress as a definitive cure for HIV, she admits it’s a giant step in the right direction.
Chelsea Bailey is EGPAF’s media relations coordinator based in Washington, D.C.