Justin Pollara: “We Can Dig Our Feet in and Push Back”

Justin Pollara, Ph.D., recipient of the Susie Zeegen Postdoctoral Award

Justin Pollara/EGPAF

In 2012, the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF) established the Susie Zeegen Postdoctoral Award, a flexible research grant to provide support for immunological or virologic research to eliminate HIV. The current award recipient is Justin Pollara, Ph.D., a researcher at Duke University, who is exploring the possibility of curing HIV infection in infants through monoclonal antibodies.

“The award came about because I was a broken record about wanting to fund research,” says Susie Zeegen, one of EGPAF’s co-founders. “My passion forever has been that the Foundation continue to fund research—when we fund research it’s not just the research we are supporting, but also the researcher.”

Despite the advances in understanding about HIV over the past 30 years, a cure for the infection continues to elude researchers. Pollara is among the new generation of scientists intent upon discovering a vulnerability within HIV that will lead to its elimination. His research focuses on introducing HIV-destroying antibodies into infants who have been infected with the virus. If Pollara’s research is successful, it may be instrumental in curing HIV in children and, eventually, adults. 

We talked with Pollara about how he entered this field and how the award will aid his research.

Why did you decide to focus your career on HIV research?

I started working as a research technician at Duke 10 years ago, as an undergraduate. I liked being in the lab, investigating basic science questions. I knew that I wanted to do something related to larger global problems, wanted to be involved in something that is going to impact the world.

As soon as I started doing HIV research, I fell in love with the challenge, and I knew that once I finished grad school, that was what I wanted to come back to. It is daunting that some of the brightest people in the field have been doing this for 30 years, and we’re still fighting this fight. That’s the challenge, and I want to contribute in whatever way I can.

When I graduated, I wrote a proposal for a training grant for HIV/AIDS through the National Institutes of Health (NIH). That got me three years of postdoc funding at Duke. We have an amazing group of senior investigators, and there are a lot of other young postdocs like me.

What drew you specifically to pediatric research?

At EGPAF, you’re no stranger to the problem of pediatric HIV and AIDS. We’ve come a long way, but we still have, worldwide, more than a quarter million new pediatric HIV infections each year. I think this is an area where we can dig our feet in and push back a bit. We have a window that we can protect against. We don’t need to protect children for decades; we just need to protect them during opportunities for transmission: while the mother’s pregnant, during birth, and throughout the breastfeeding period.

Since we have this narrow window of time, this seems like an area where immunological therapies can play a role. Specifically, what we are interested in is using monoclonal antibody therapy. Monoclonal antibodies are expensive to make, but, as the dose is determined by body weight, infants are the best candidates for this therapy, given their small size.

We want to use antibodies that can find HIV-infected cells and recruit other cells in the immune system to kill them. This is an approach to actually curing HIV.  However, this approach will need to be combined with drugs and strategies to reactivate the virus, because once it goes latent the antibodies can’t find it. The model that I am using is to identify these antibodies and to test them in vitro [outside the body] with umbilical cord blood, which is the best surrogate for pediatric blood.

How close are we to finding a cure for HIV?

I feel like we’re close, but I don’t know what the time frame on close is. It seems that every year I go the international meetings on an HIV vaccine, and there’s always some new finding or development that excites the field. We’re always one step closer, but none of us knows how many steps there are to go.

What does this award mean to you?

It’s a huge boost. I was very excited when I heard that I had been chosen for this award. There’s enough money to do the work that I propose. It’s money for me to do research that I am interested in doing and that I think is important, under my own direction. I really look forward to spending the year on this project.