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Progress Toward a Cure: A Conversation with Leading Wistar HIV Research Scientist on World AIDS Day

On the eve of World AIDS Day, we chat with trailblazing scientist Dr. Luis Montaner, Herbert Kean, M.D., Family Endowed Chair Professor, and leader of the HIV Research Program at Wistar. On Dec. 1, tune in to hear him in person as part of the NIH World AIDS Day 2021 Virtual Event.

Q: Tell me about the National Institute of Health’s (NIH) World AIDS Day virtual event. Is this the first time you’ve taken part?
 
A: Yes, it is, and it coincides with the release of the national HIV/AIDS strategy. We are discussing the research priorities moving into the future. I’m part of a panel to discuss recommendations, and community engagement. 

Q: Have you taken stock of your most meaningful accomplishments over the last year? Have you reflected on the Wistar HIV Program you’re building, the type of researchers you’re recruiting, and what this means?
 
A: The last year has been transformational because we were able to successfully renew our Delaney grant with a larger coalition of investigators and a larger budget than the first award.  Community engagement has also developed to a much greater extent than what we had before. We also were able to recruit additional investigators into the HIV program with Drs. Amelia Escolano and Dan Claiborne. Wistar efforts also developed the infrastructure for bringing humanized mouse models of disease into our HIV Program, identified novel predictors of HIV control, and completed recruitment of a human trial testing a novel strategy of immunotherapy against HIV in spite of COVID-19. Last year was critical to creating a great foundation for the impact Wistar will have on the search for an HIV cure in the coming years. 

Q: What does World AIDS Day mean to you?

A: World AIDS day is really a reminder that we still have a lot of unfinished business to address. Although therapy has made living with HIV a chronic disease, there is still global disparity in access to therapy. 

In addition, the need to generate a cure remains. On one hand, World AIDS Day is a reminder that we still have added efforts to move forward to provide answers as to how best to reach a cure, but at the same time, it’s sort of a time to reflect and recognize our progress in moving cure-directed efforts forward.

Q: Tell me about this year’s theme Ending the HIV Epidemic: Equitable Access, Everyone’s Voice. How do you ensure community representation in the recruitment of your clinical trials? How do you equally include minorities in clinical trial representation?

A: Community engagement across all NIH efforts is a priority and is reflected in the focus of the NIH virtual discussion happening on 12/1. 

We at Wistar have recognized that it’s an important feature of our efforts from the beginning. Community outreach in Philadelphia has been effective in bringing voices from all people living with HIV into the Wistar research fold. It is reflected in the Jonathan Lax lectures we’ve held for over 25 years, the Legacy Awards earlier this year in which we acknowledged our partners, and the development of a cure research-directed Community Advisory Board (CAB), which now directly convenes around our research. Bringing together Philadelphia FIGHT with our Community Advisory Board, we now have created a Community Engagement Group that we call the CEG. The perspective from community groups is different than the perspective of individual persons living with HIV (members of the CAB).  But together, each bring a lot more voices into the research effort.

Q: Tell me a few of the successes you’ve had in the course of your career thus far and why they are important?

A: I think the biggest success is the development of coalition of researchers singularly focused towards a cure. Bringing together and growing a group that nurtures new investigators and advances seasoned investigators towards a common goal, is a great story.

Q: In latest news, a second person has been cured naturally by their own immune system. What does it mean for the HIV cure research that you’re doing, and future?
 
A: I think this case gives us all hope as it shows that our immune systems can overcome an established infection. We still have the open question as to how it happened – but the fact it did means we can reach towards that goal for all. 

Q: You work closely with community partners to continue advancing research towards an HIV cure. Is there any person or people who taught you what community outreach means and how to do it? What did you learn from them? How did they teach you? What do you think you taught them?

A: A lot of times we get so invested in the research effort that we have to stand back to see it from the community perspective, from individuals living with HIV, and all affected populations.  Persons living with HIV come from all walks of life including those with disparities in access to health care, economic challenges, class challenges that may include a whole series of life experiences including domestic violence, or other types of unique circumstances that has shaped how HIV affected their lives.  The recent creation of a CAB bringing community input into our cure-directed efforts has taught me the power of individual experience when deciding how best to communicate with and/or work with community partners to advance research towards a cure.