The Univeristy of Melbourne The Royal Melbourne Hopspital

A joint venture between The University of Melbourne and The Royal Melbourne Hospital


19 Jul 2016

AIDS 2016: A young researcher’s insight

Dr Renee van der Sluis, a research fellow in the Lewin/Cameron Lab at the Doherty Institute has been selected as a Rapporteur for the AIDS 2016 Conference in Durban, South Africa. Here are some of her reflections from the Towards a Cure Symposium.

Saturday 16 July

The ‘Toward an HIV Cure: Engaging the Community Workshop’ started with a warm welcome from Laureate Professor Françoise Barré-Sinoussi followed by an interactive session hosted by Damian Kelly and Jessica Salzwedel. The duo encouraged the audience to actively engage with the upcoming speaker by asking ethical questions which could be confirmed or denied by raising red or green cards. These included relatively simple statements such as ‘a cure cannot be achieved without community engagement’, to more difficult statements questioning the audience whether a cure would reduce stigma. Or about the legal liability of potentially cured individuals and the possibility of transmitting the virus unknowingly - if it turned out the cure treatment was successful, should an individual disclose that they were once positive? Food for thought for all of us.

In the first session ‘An introduction to the science of HIV cure’ prominent scientists were teamed up with non-scientists and challenged to give a short presentation. There were three teams, one of which included Doherty Institute Director, Professor Sharon Lewin and journalist Gus Cairns, who provided a fantastic overview of everything one needs to know about cure research in mostly lay terms, which is quite a challenge. They explained the difference between cure and remission, what undetectable viral load means and why can this differ with various lab assays.

The second session was a panel discussion about community engagement. It was mentioned several times that there is a need for crystal-clear terminology, either from English to another language or from scientific English to lay term English. Such that people will not confuse the infected cell with the infected individual when popular statements such as ‘shock and kill’ or ‘eradication’ are used. The panel members also raised the issue that sadly, stigma is still a major problem and that a constant dialogue is necessary, not only to engage people in cure research but also to keep educating people as this may contribute to reducing stigma.

To hear all these stories from people reaching out to be heard and share the stories of their community was incredibly informative and sometimes even emotional. There are people that are so eagerly waiting for a cure – for me, it put our work as scientists in a new light.

July 17, 2016

I attended a session about novel strategies for cure opened by Professor Olivier Lambotte - he gave a fascinating talk about how oncology can help HIV cure strategies. This was followed by more short talks about gene editing, stem cell transplantation and combination of various latency reversing agents. Cool session and lots of science.

Then another round table discussion about bridging biomedical and social sciences. Professor Steve Deeks raised the ethical question, should we provide consent forms for partners of individuals participating in cure studies during the treatment interruption phase? Dr Jerome Singh from South Africa raised the interesting point that it would be unlikely to be subsidised by pharmaceutical companies if participants have more than one sexual partner, again showing the audience that if we want to reach a cure globally we need to think about the different cultures, lifestyles and customs to include everyone that wants to be included in a safe and controlled manner.

To close the day, the IAS-ANRS Young Investigator Prize was awarded to Tianyu He from the United States. The lovely thing was that the organisers renamed the prize into the Joep Lange and Jaqueline van Tongeren award, which I think many will find a beautiful way to honour and remember these amazing people, who tragically died in the MH17 plane crash in 2014.