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Women in the News: Key to HIV Cure Found

By Tara Hughes

In today’s age of rapid innovation and discovery, there is no shortage of female doctors and scientists gracing the headlines and receiving recognition for their successes. One such woman, Dr. Deborah Persaud, is at the forefront of pediatric HIV/AIDS research and is known most recently for her role in the announcement of a cured, Mississippi baby born with HIV.

Persaud’s preeminence in the field of HIV/AIDS research is a result of a long road of hard work and perseverance. Currently an associate professor at the John’s Hopkins Children’s Center, where she began research on pediatric HIV in 1997, Persaud doubles as the director of the center’s infectious disease fellowship program.

In February 2005, Persaud won the Elizabeth Glaser Scientist Award. Each year, the Elizabeth Glaser Pediatrics AIDS Foundation presents this prestigious award to several HIV/AIDS researchers. In 2005, Persaud was the award’s only recipient. The grant money she received allowed her research to develop further, particularly in regard to HIV/AIDS therapy methods in the U.S. and Ethiopia.

A 2012 grant awarded to Persaud and her colleague Dr. Katherine Luzuriaga of the University of Massachusetts Medical School made the Mississippi baby’s cure possible. The grant, awarded by the Foundation for AIDS Research, allowed Persaud and Luzuriaga to focus more specifically on HIV infection in infants.

Persaud’s role in this cure lies in the investigation and publication of the study that resulted in the baby’s cure. The New York Times and the Huffington Post offer further information on the story, in which Persaud is identified as the lead author of the report on the baby.

Two and a half years ago, a pregnant woman who had not being receiving any prenatal care, and who was unaware of her HIV positive status, arrived at a rural Mississippi hospital to give birth to her premature child. Upon running tests on the new mother, doctors discovered that she was indeed HIV positive and therefore her baby was at a very high risk of also having the infection that causes the AIDS virus.

After being transferred to the University of Mississippi hospital, the baby was given proper medical attention. Instead of waiting to run tests to confirm whether or not the baby was HIV positive, doctors decided to give the baby the full, standard component of treatment. By the time the baby was a month old virus levels were imperceptible.

The mother continued bringing her baby in for treatment but suddenly stopped coming to the hospital after 18 months of drugs had been administered. Five months later, the mother and baby reappeared. Doctors expected viral levels in the baby to have surged with five months of no medication but all tests were negative. The baby has now been off of medication for a year now with no signs of infection.

The science behind the success story suggests that timing was a significant factor in the baby’s cure. Being treated so quickly eradicated the infection from the baby’s blood stream before it could form reservoirs in the body. When reservoirs manifest, the infection can lay dormant and unaffected by drugs, capable of reentering the blood stream at any time.

Though it is unusual for babies in the US to be born with HIV, due to prenatal treatment that prevents transmission from mother to child, the same cannot be said for most parts of the world where infection rates are highest. The Huffington Post reports that 300,000 to 400,000 babies are born each year with HIV — sub-Saharan Africa being the most significantly infected region of the world. Further investigation of this Mississippi baby’s success story could offer significant implications for curbing incidences of HIV transmission via pregnancy.

In early March, Persaud and several researchers presented the study’s findings at the Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections in Atlanta, Ga. Persaud and her colleagues were able to confirm that both the baby and the mother were HIV positive at the time of the baby’s birth and that today, there are no signs of infection in the child.


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