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The legacy of Nkosi Johnson

At AIDS 2016, a South African pediatrician and Fred Hutch vaccine researcher pays tribute to a young HIV hero

July 25, 2016 | By Dr. Glenda Gray

Nkosi Johnson

Nkosi Johnson at the 2000 International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa.

File photo by Themba Hadebe / AP

Editor’s note: Now president of the South African Medical Research Council and a principal investigator for the Fred Hutch-based global HIV Vaccine Trials Network, Dr. Glenda Gray spent much of her career as a pediatrician at an enormous hospital in the township of Soweto. As a clinician, researcher and activist, she successfully fought to prevent mother-to-child HIV transmission. Here she recalls the days before prevention or treatment was available, and she remembers one child in particular who received international acclaim after addressing the 2000 AIDS conference in Durban, South Africa. Gray gave this talk to a gathering of colleagues from that time attending the 2016 AIDS conference, held again in Durban.    

Nkosi Johnson died a year after the 2000 Durban AIDS Conference, and his premature death was probably one of the only AIDS deaths in a child that got noticed.

At that time, he was one of the 70,000 children getting infected each year through mother-to-child transmission in South Africa. His life was and is a tribute to all HIV-infected children who battle this disease in secret and with shame.

At the time of Nkosi’s death at age 12, Nelson Mandela referred to him as an “icon of the struggle for life.” That so aptly describes the role that Nkosi played, and it symbolizes his urgency to live at a time when antiretroviral drugs were not yet available in Africa.

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AIDS 2016: Faces and voices from an ongoing pandemic

Beyond HIV treatment to vaccines and a cure, calls to finish the job — and leave no one behind

July 25, 2016 | By Mary Engel / Fred Hutch News Service

AIDS 2016

The closing session of AIDS 2016, the biennial meeting of the International AIDS Society, in Durban, South Africa, drew about 18,000 scientists, world leaders, celebrities, advocates and people living with HIV from 180 countries.

By Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Editor's note: Fred Hutch News Service reporter Mary Engel and photographer Robert Hood are in Durban, South Africa, covering the news from the 21st International AIDS Conference.

DURBAN, South Africa — Maurine Murenga learned she had HIV when she was pregnant with her first child. In was 2002, and the antiretroviral drugs that were saving lives in developed countries were barely available, and certainly not affordable, in her native Kenya.

She assumed she would die. Her biggest fear was how.

Maurine Murenga

Maurine Murenga

By Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

“I saw the kind of pain people went through and heard about people who were found in their homes five days after they died, with their children still beside them,” she told a packed hall of scientists, policymakers, advocates and other people with HIV attending the AIDS 2016 conference last week in Durban, South Africa.

Murenga survived, thanks first to a group of women, also HIV positive, who embraced and supported her; and then to the arrival the following year of lifesaving drugs for both her and the son who was born with HIV. The political will to bring antiretroviral drugs to poor and low-income countries had been forged the only other time the International AIDS Society had convened in sub-Saharan Africa, also in Durban, in 2000.

Now on the staff of the International Community of Women Living with HIV, Murenga traveled to Durban in part to celebrate how much has changed in the intervening years.  But she also was there to tell conference attendees — and the world ­— of how much has not.

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Good News at Fred Hutch

Celebrating faculty and staff achievements

July 22, 2016

Dr. Athea Vichas

Dr. Athea Vichas

Photo courtesy of Dr. Athea Vichas

Two young scientists earn first Hutch United fellowships

It’s a boost for young science — and a boon for diversity.

Dr. Athea Vichas and Vasundhara Sridharan have received the inaugural Hutch United fellowships, an initiative to back underrepresented researchers and bolster the retention and recruitment of lab talent at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center.

Each recipient said the fellowships — which provide $100,000 in annual direct costs — would advance their science and elevate Fred Hutch’s stature as a highly inclusive organization.

“Earning it is an incredible honor,” said Vichas, a postdoctoral fellow in the Moens Lab, where researchers study development of the vertebrate brain, including genes involved in cancer progression.

“The presence of Hutch United speaks to the priorities the center has placed to allow underrepresented groups within the STEM field to not only feel included and welcome but also supported,” Vichas said.

The advancement of biomedical research, Vichas said, requires a diverse and collaborative environment that encourages scientists to investigate, question and learn. As an undergraduate student at the University of Oregon, Vichas co-led workshops through the school’s LGBT center and spoke on community panels “to share my personal experience as an out lesbian,” she said. Vichas also volunteers on the Hutch United Mentoring Network committee.

“Fostering really great mentoring is going to be key to retention and recruitment of these students,” Vichas said. “Right now, without that, you can easily walk into a STEM field and look around a room and not see anybody who is like you.”

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HIV vaccine clinical trials take center stage at world's largest global health conference

'The HIV vaccine field is open for business,' said Fred Hutch's Dr. Larry Corey at International AIDS Society's biennial meeting in Durban, South Africa

July 20, 2016 | By Mary Engel / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr. Larry Corey

Dr. Larry Corey, who leads the HIV Vaccine Trials Network at Fred Hutch, talks about current and coming clinical trials at the AIDS2016 in Durban, South Africa.

By Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Editor's note: Fred Hutch News Service reporter Mary Engel and photographer Robert Hood are in Durban, South Africa, covering the news from the 21st International AIDS Conference.

DURBAN, South Africa — Hopes for a truly effective HIV vaccine were mostly the stuff of dreams in 2000, the last and only time Durban, South Africa hosted the biennial meeting of the International AIDS Society.

The global HIV Vaccine Trials Network, based at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and led by virologist and former Fred Hutch President and Director Dr. Larry Corey, was just being organized. No vaccine clinical trials were underway in South Africa, whose president at the time denied that HIV even caused AIDS.

Sixteen years later, things have changed.

When Corey took the stage Wednesday before fellow scientists, advocates, policymakers and people living with HIV attending AIDS 2016, the world’s largest global health conference, his message was upbeat.

“The HIV vaccine field,” he said, “is open for business.”

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Renewed hope for halting HIV through vaccine

At International AIDS Conference, researchers are optimistic as two new HIV vaccine trials are set to explore different approaches for protection

July 19, 2016 | By Mary Engel / Fred Hutch News Service

Dr.  Anthony Fauci

“The pathway to HIV vaccine will be full of surprises,” predicted Dr. Anthony Fauci at the International AIDS Conference in Durban, South Africa on Tuesday.

Photo by Robert Hood / Fred Hutch News Service

Editor's note: Fred Hutch News Service reporter Mary Engel and photographer Robert Hood are in Durban, South Africa, covering the news from the 21st International AIDS Conference.

DURBAN, South Africa — Dr. Albert Sabin, developer of the oral live virus polio, once told Dr. Anthony Fauci, “Tony, I do not think we will ever have an HIV vaccine.”

As a physician, Fauci, the long-time director of the National Institute of Allergies and Infectious Diseases, part of the U.S. National Institutes of Health, had cared for Sabin in his last days. As a friend, he had delivered the eulogy when Sabin died at age 86 in 1993.

But as a scientist, he completely disagreed with one of the preeminent figures in medical history.

“As much as I loved him, my dear friend Albert Sabin will be proven to be incorrect — one of the very, very few times that Albert ever was wrong,” Fauci told a conference hall packed with scientists on Tuesday at the biennial meeting of the International AIDS Society in Durban, South Africa.

Fauci has reason to be optimistic. As the AIDS 2016 conference got underway, the NIAID-funded HIV Vaccine Trials Network, or HVTN, based at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, was gearing up to launch a large-scale trial in South Africa in November, the first such trial to be in the field in a decade and one that could lead to the first licensed vaccine against HIV.

And within the last few months, the HVTN, working with its sister network, the HIV Prevention Trials Network, or HPTN, based in Durham, North Carolina, has begun what is already being called a landmark study to test an experimental, so-called broadly neutralizing antibody that could potentially protect people from infection by almost all strains of the rapidly mutating virus that causes AIDS.

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Global AIDS conference returns to Africa: What's changed

The last time the International AIDS Conference was in Africa, AIDS denialism was at its height; two Fred Hutch leaders in the fight to end HIV talk about where we’ve been – and what’s next

July 18, 2016

DURBAN, South Africa — The International AIDS Conference is being held this week in Durban, South Africa, only the second time it's been hosted in Africa. Dr. Larry Corey, leader of the HIV Vaccine Trials Network at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, and Dr. Glenda Gray, president of the South African Medical Research Council and the co-leader of the HVTN, talk about what’s changed since that conference 16 years ago and what's coming next.
By Robert Hood and Mary Engel / Fred Hutch News Service

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