The young man in Mombasa, Kenya, was just 17 or 18 when Dr. Julie Overbaugh sat down to give him some insights into what she does so well: HIV research.
“I asked him about himself,” Overbaugh recalls. “And he said, ‘I’m the only one in my family left. My mom and my dad and my brothers and sisters are all dead from HIV.’
“What was inspiring was he said, ‘I want to do something. I want to do something with my life and I want to know how people do that’ … [Even through his loss] he wanted to be thinking about his future.”
Overbaugh is no stranger to the desire to help others. On hiatus from a Ph.D. in chemistry, she spent a few months in Oklahoma in 1982 aiding the effort to ratify the Equal Rights Amendment. And for much of her research career, she has focused on people particularly vulnerable to HIV and its effects: commercial sex workers and HIV-positive mothers and their infants in Kenya.
“I realized that the issues in Kenya were so critical — for women, for infants, for high risk groups — that this was a place where the science you do could actually impact public health,” says Overbaugh.
Around the same time that HIV was discovered, she jumped from chemistry to virology and public health, first studying a virus that causes an AIDS-like disease in cats and then moving into researching HIV itself.
In 1993, Overbaugh joined Dr. Joan Kreiss from the University of Washington and Kenyan researcher Dr. Ruth Nduati, plus a team of clinicians and epidemiologists, to study the HIV transmission risk that breastfeeding posed to uninfected infants of HIV-positive mothers.
“I realized that the issues in Kenya were so critical — for women, for infants, for high risk groups — that this was a place where the science you do could actually impact public health,” says Overbaugh, who started by contributing methods to detect HIV infection to the Kenya Research Program.
Breastfeeding could transmit HIV within an infant’s first few months, the Kenya research team discovered. Once antiretroviral therapies became available, the breastfeeding trial results helped shape treatment paradigms designed to prevent HIV transmission to infants.
The foundation of collaboration Overbaugh built continues to inform her research today. Samples collected during the Nairobi breastfeeding trial provide insights into anti-HIV immune responses that could guide vaccine development. Using these samples, Overbaugh and her team have discovered that infants can quickly produce potentially protective immune responses against HIV, and that mothers pass along a special type of antibody that can protect against HIV infection and also reduce severity of disease in infants that do become infected.
Always interested in questions that help others, Overbaugh pursues a dizzying number of questions related to HIV infection. For 23 years and counting, she has studied HIV risk factors and reinfection in the longest running study of HIV risk factors in high-risk women. She has examined how the variants of HIV that are transmitted — just a tiny fraction of the variants that arise in each infected individual — are unique, and she encouraged the field to study these variants in particular.
Overbaugh continues to study key questions of HIV transmission, from risk factors in human populations to viral characteristics that influence immune response and could inform vaccine design. She is dissecting the components that contribute to a better HIV model so that vaccine researchers have the information they need to build a truly effective vaccine. Additionally, her team works with Kenyan researchers to create methods to better detect different HIV strains and assess drug resistance.
As much as Overbaugh appreciates basic science for basic science’s sake, connection to Kenya helps keep her grounded, she says. The scientists and patients in Kenya are a constant reminder of what is truly important about HIV research.
“I’m in [research] because I want to contribute to preventing HIV,” says Overbaugh.
— By Sabrina Richards, updated Oct. 1, 2021