Jeff Safrit

“I wanted to contribute to the development of an HIV/AIDS vaccine”

AIDS research has always been at the heart of EGPAF’s fight to end pediatric AIDS. Jeff Safrit, EGPAF’s director of basic and clinical research, has been involved in AIDS research since 1991 and is moving EGPAF forward in its efforts to find a cure for pediatric AIDS.

Research in the Beginning…

I was made aware of the then Pediatric AIDS Foundation (PAF) when I was looking for funding opportunities when I was a post-doctoral candidate at the Aaron Diamond AIDS Research Center in New York. My advisor, Dr. Richard Koup and my collaborators, Dr. Steven Wolinsky and Dr. David Ho were all involved in the early PAF think tanks that were helping determine important questions in terms of pediatric [AIDS] research. Rick Koup later received one of the original Elizabeth Glaser Scientist Awards (EGSA), which was also a research grant. That was a big deal, because they were the only named awards in AIDS research at the time.

My first foray into HIV and AIDS research was through Rick, who also had one of the first research grants from PAF in 1989 or 1990. I applied for funding from PAF in 1994, and got a basic research grant of my own, looking at the early immune response to HIV in pediatric cases.

In 1994, David Ho, and others got tickets to Kids for Kids, and that was how I met Elizabeth. She was already pretty sick, pretty frail. That was the year she passed away.

A few years later, I was an Assistant Professor at the Vaccine Research Center at Emory University, focusing on an HIV vaccine. I looked at people who I respected in the field, and even though they were very successful at getting government grants and other funding, with each successful grant, they immediately started writing the next one. They weren’t doing the research anymore, they were just writing grants.

I wanted to contribute to the development of an HIV/AIDS vaccine. One way to do that was to toil away in your lab forever, and maybe one day you’ll have a breakthrough. The other way is to participate in a large group through program/project grants or consortium grants. It funds a group of people at different organizations, and in my mind, that was the most effective way to think about getting to an HIV vaccine.

At the time, the renamed Elizabeth Glaser Pediatric AIDS Foundation (EGPAF) only had one clinician who was actually working with the Foundation, and that was Cathy Wilfert. It was thought that having someone with my background on staff to help with grants management and think about the direction of research at the Foundation would be a good thing, and my position was created in 2001.

Right around that same time, the Foundation was starting its international work with PMTCT efforts in just a few sites in Africa, so I came on board at a time when things were already starting to change a little bit. It took a long time to move from research to implementation to the extent that it is now. It didn’t happen overnight.

The Fight Continues…

The role of the Foundation in AIDS research has changed significantly in my time here. Importantly, we are focused on solving the problem where the problem exists in sub-Saharan Africa and other parts of the world. And now the field of HIV research has evolved and EGPAF’s role has evolved. It used to be just me and Chris [Hudnall], and then we changed to start focusing on operations research to look at how we could improve programs and service delivery. We have added several research staff to help us achieve our goals including Dr. Laura Guay, vice president of research.

One of the reasons that I think it’s still important for me to be here is that we still need research to eliminate pediatric HIV and we don’t yet have an HIV vaccine. We are now also starting to talk about a cure. I’m proud to say that we are starting a very important initiative around raising a significant amount of money for funding pediatric HIV cure research.

Given the results of this year, with the Mississippi baby, there is a huge amount of attention being paid to cure research. Until the Mississippi baby case was presented in February, there was no cure research focused on pediatric issues. It’s all focused on adults and children are once again being left behind. That’s why the Foundation was started, because Elizabeth wanted to save Jake’s life and no one was focusing on pediatric HIV.

Looking Toward the Future, and Remembering the Past…

I still think that we need a vaccine and we will get a vaccine. This is why I think our mission statement is critical (“prevent pediatric HIV infection and to eradicate pediatric AIDS”). We aren’t going to eradicate pediatric HIV/AIDS without the combination of treatment, a vaccine, and cure. I am excited about an HIV vaccine and cure research that is applicable to all ages, not just infants.

I think that Elizabeth Glaser would be in awe about what the Foundation has achieved in terms of the epidemic in the U.S. and in stemming the tide in places where it means the most. The fact that we have reached 18 million women with prevention of mother-to-child transmission of HIV services just blows my mind and it is impossible to say that that’s not an amazing statistic. In my mind, the Foundation is where it is today and is seen as one of the major organizations in HIV and AIDS research and implementation because of its strong history as a research funding organization.

An EGPAF event at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) in 2000 with Grace Aldrovandi on the left (EGSA) and Susan DeLaurentis

Jeff Safrit (third from left), with EGPAF staff at the Elizabeth Glaser Scientist Award Think Tank in 2003

Jeff during his laboratory days at the Emory Vaccine Center at Emory University