With a roster of community activists and volunteers, the defeatHIV Community Advisory Board, or CAB, has played a vital role in assuring that people in the Seattle area living with HIV are informed and engaged in research efforts to find a lasting cure.
This month, their efforts were honored by Dr. Julie McElrath, vice president and director of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Division, or VIDD, of Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, who presented the local organization with its annual Impact in VIDD Award.
“We all know that HIV has touched us in many ways and continues to be a very challenging problem. It’s important that you came together and that your team is just as vibrant as it was since the day you started in 2013,” McElrath said.
In accepting the award, Michael Louella, community engagement project manager for the defeatHIV CAB, praised the network of past and present advisory board members. They came together to provide a community perspective on HIV cure research inspired by the case of Timothy Ray Brown, a Seattle native who became the first person ever cured of HIV/AIDS.
“The CAB came from an idea that was born from our community members just trying to understand difficult science,” Louella said.
In 2007 in Berlin, Brown received the first of two transplants of blood-forming stem cells to treat his leukemia. Those cells came from a donor who carried rare genes that confer resistance to HIV, and his doctor hoped the procedure might cure him of his HIV as well. Remarkably, it worked, and after several more failed attempts around the globe, last year it was reported that two additional patients may have been cured of HIV in similar procedures.
Founded in 2013 by Hutch virologist Dr. Keith Jerome and gene therapy expert Dr. Hans-Peter Kiem, defeatHIV has been working ever since to study Brown’s experience and find ways to replicate it in others. Jerome said that the defeatHIV CAB has provided invaluable support and inspiration to the researchers.
“Everybody in the HIV cure arena knows this CAB,” he said. “And they look to it as a model. The job that this group has done has made the other CABs lift their game.”
While the award cites the group for its positive impact on HIV cure research at the Hutch, the defeatHIV CAB’s influence extends far beyond, according to Steven Wakefield — who goes by the single name Wakefield — and directs external relations for the Hutch-based HIV Vaccine Trials Network, which runs clinical trials of HIV vaccines in nine countries. He noted that he works with HIV activists and CABs around the world.
“This CAB is not just getting an award today. It is recognized globally,” Wakefield said. “Just last month I was sitting in a meeting with folks from Australia, discussing an issue, and they said, ‘Call defeatHIV. They probably know how to solve it.’”
Sabin Russell is a former staff writer at Fred Hutchinson Cancer Center. For two decades he covered medical science, global health and health care economics for the San Francisco Chronicle, and he wrote extensively about infectious diseases, including HIV/AIDS. He was a Knight Science Journalism Fellow at MIT and a freelance writer for the New York Times and Health Affairs.