Championing contemporary research on HIV, “the other pandemic”
Even as the world has continued to navigate the COVID-19 pandemic for nearly two years, many Leidos Biomedical Research employees remain dedicated to research on “the other pandemic,” or the HIV pandemic. Leidos Biomedical Research operates the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research (FNLCR) on behalf of the National Cancer Institute within the National Institutes of Health.
At the FNLCR, Dr. Jeff Lifson directs the AIDS and Cancer Virus Program, which is part of a large, multifaceted HIV research effort at the national lab. He works with a team of scientists trying to unravel the secrets of a dangerous virus and understand how it interacts with the body to cause a deadly disease.
Lifson and his team use what they discover to develop ways to keep people from getting infected or getting sick, including through innovative, cutting-edge technology.
The impact of biomedical research on HIV/AIDS
The first cases of what came to be known as AIDS were diagnosed 40 years ago.
"I was in medical school, and there was no treatment for this frightening new disease," Lifson shared. "A diagnosis was effectively a death sentence."
Reflecting on World AIDS Day, he noted that when HIV was identified as the causal agent for AIDS in the early 1980s, researchers discovered that it was a retrovirus. While this type of virus was still unknown to many researchers, a team of scientists under the leadership of Dr. Larry Arthur at the precursor of the FNLCR was already experienced with retroviruses involved in cancer.
Thanks to their expertise, the team “rapidly produced large amounts of the new virus, enabling the development of the first generation of screening test kits used to protect the blood supply from HIV,” Lifson said. Arthur recruited Lifson to join the group and laid the visionary groundwork for what is today the lab’s AIDS and Cancer Virus Program.
Lifson would go on to focus much of his own research career on HIV, joining the program in 1995 and becoming its director in 2002.
“Building on those early contributions, our program has continued to impact HIV/AIDS research, including currently, in high priority areas of unmet need,” he commented.
Lifson pointed out that decades of progress in HIV treatment have “culminated today in a single pill taken daily, containing dual- or triple-combination drug therapies that are safe and highly effective at stopping the virus in its tracks.”
HIV today is a manageable chronic disease for those with access to care and represents one of the great triumphs of biomedical science.
“There has been progress, too, in overcoming some of the prejudice and stigma that was directed toward infected individuals during the early years of the pandemic,” Lifson added.
A collaborative approach to “the other pandemic”
Despite this tremendous success, HIV continues to be an important contemporary research area with many challenges still unmet. According to statistics from the Joint United Nations Programme on HIV/AIDS:
- Roughly 38 million people are living with HIV, including nearly two million children.
- In 2020 alone, there were nearly two million deaths from HIV infection and its complications worldwide.
- Across the globe, 1.5 million new infections are reported per year.
The team continues to focus on developing effective vaccine and non-vaccine approaches to preventing HIV infection. Features of HIV make it a more formidable vaccine target than other viruses, including SARS-CoV-2—the virus that causes COVID-19—but some novel approaches are showing promise in pre-clinical studies.
The group also works on more definitive treatments for already infected individuals, including approaches that do not require lifelong daily medication, which is the current standard for managing HIV infection. The team at FNLCR continues to investigate how the virus can persist despite effectively suppressive treatment and to develop improved systems for evaluating approaches to target and eliminate this persistent virus.
Collaboration is a key part of how the AIDS and Cancer Virus Program team contributes to continued progress in HIV research. The team provides access to specialized capabilities and expertise they develop to collaborators at NIH, as well as to investigators around the country in the extramural research community and through collaborations with biotech and pharmaceutical partners.
Rewarding work for generations of researchers
Lifson is proud to be part of a team that works diligently to combat a virus affecting millions around the world.
“After dealing with HIV for 40 years, I hope that in another 40 years the problem of HIV infection will have long since been solved, and the many things that we have learned in the process are being successfully applied to meet other new biomedical challenges,” Lifson shared.
The work is satisfying and Lifson believes many aspiring researchers would find gratification in joining the fight against HIV.
“If you can’t help yourself from asking ‘How does that work?’ and ‘Why does it work that way?’ and you are fascinated by biological systems and wondering how they work, you might find it satisfying to be a biomedical researcher working on HIV,” he advised.
“But at the same time, never lose sight of the fact the reason to do this work is to help people.”