THE UNSUNG FILIPINA WHO CURED HIV
Time Magazine’s 2013 listing of the 100 most influential people in the world included two Filipinos: President Benigno Aquino and Dr. Katherine Luzuriaga, a pediatric immunologist from the University of Massachusetts.
And yet, despite the groundbreaking impact of her work, she remains largely unacknowledged in her own country.
Luzuriaga —whose father is Filipino and who still does, in fact, speak Filipino— was part of an all-woman medical team acknowledged for the first cure of a baby with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV), the cause of AIDS.
The cured baby was born in Mississippi more than two years ago to a mother who had HIV but was not diagnosed until she had gone into labor. The mother apparently did not have prenatal care because if she did, she would have been diagnosed early and given three drugs to prevent the fetus from being infected.
In this case, the child was first given the drugs 30 hours after she was born. Right before being given the medicines, the baby was tested for HIV, the results of which came back positive. Within the first month of therapy, tests could no longer find the virus. However, doctors kept the child on the drugs, standard practice in the United States and developed countries because of the possibility of reservoirs or “hideouts” for the virus that allow it to continue to replicate.
With time though, the mother began to become irregular with her hospital visits for her child. When the child was brought in for a check-up around the age of two, the mother admitted that the child had missing out on the drugs. Yet when tests were conducted, the child’s HIV levels still remained undetectable, which means a “functional cure”.
Luzuriaga herself explains the breakthrough in a brief interview:
The other two members of the team, Dr. Hannah Gay of the University of Mississippi and Dr. Deborah Persaud, a virologist at Johns Hopkins Children’s Center, were also included in Time’s 100.
The child’s cure brings hopes into the rather bleak AIDS research front. HIV is a retrovirus and several anti-retroviral drugs have been developed over the last few years but these only slow down the replication of the virus. It does not cure AIDS and the expensive treatment has to be maintained for a lifetime. Efforts to develop a vaccine have been unsuccessful, the latest trial just halted this week after researchers reported the vaccine did not seem to be making a difference, and might even have led to an increase in the risk of infection.
Luzuriaga and her colleagues presented their case report at a conference last March, cautiously pointing out that while this cure is unprecedented, it is only one case. It does, however, suggest that early and aggressive treatment of pediatric AIDS could result in a cure, without children having to take the drugs for the rest of their life. Pediatric AIDS is still a major problem, with some 300,000 new infections each year in the world.
What struck me was that the local press initially only picked up on the president’s making it to the list. After the Time awards ceremony on April 23, there has been some, but, I feel, not enough, mention of Luzuriaga, who is acknowledged as one of the experts in the field of pediatric AIDS. She is also professor of pediatrics and molecular medicine at the University of Massachusetts, and directs the university’s Center for Clinical and Translational Medicine. (If you’re wondering, translational medicine involves linking research to actual applications in clinical practice.)
Even more importantly, the work of Luzuriaga and her two colleagues once again emphasize the contributions of women scientists, and how they remain all too invisible..