“The fastest growing population of people with HIV in the world is young girls in sub-Saharan Africa,” said Dr. Eileen Scully of Johns Hopkins University at amfAR’s Meet the Scientists event in New York City, March 28. “We cannot pretend we’re moving forward with an HIV cure agenda that’s going to help the whole world unless it works in both men and women.”
Dr. Scully teamed up with Dr. Galit Alter of Harvard Medical School for the Meet the Scientists event, which was held in commemoration of Women’s History Month and was moderated by Dr. Rowena Johnston, amfAR vice president and director of research. Both Dr. Scully and Dr. Alter are amfAR-funded researchers.
The event drew amfAR supporters from the New York area for a lively discussion that focused on amfAR-funded research on sex differences in the HIV reservoir, the need to balance gender in clinical research, and the experience of being a woman in HIV research.
On sex differences in the HIV reservoir
“We have this naturally existing comparison between two populations, both of whom are living with this disease worldwide,” said Dr. Scully. “How can we not be leveraging known differences in the immune system to try to understand more detail about HIV pathogenesis?”
In her amfAR-funded study on sex differences in the HIV reservoir, Dr. Scully in collaboration with Dr. Jonathan Karn of Case Western Reserve University found that the hormone estrogen—predominant in women—could act on latent HIV in the reservoir and make it more difficult to “wake up” this HIV in a shock and kill approach to cure.
Dr. Scully noted that estrogen had not even been an initial research target, and that such a finding may have a substantial impact in the pursuit of a cure strategy that is effective for everyone.
On the need to balance gender in clinical research
“There’s not a lot of research in the cure space on female-male differences,” said Dr. Alter. “The most revelatory change occurred two or three years ago when the NIH made it necessary that you had to explicitly state how many females and males you include in every one of your studies, and had to justify if you didn’t balance your genders in every single study.”
“There are real differences that are both scientifically useful and therapeutically important,” said Dr. Scully. “I also think token inclusion of women is a really dangerous path, where there’s five women in a study of a hundred people and the conclusion is that women are the same as men.”
On the experience of being a woman in HIV research
The discussion concluded with the three scientists reflecting on a range of experiences—good and bad—in and out of the laboratory as women in science.
“There are fewer and fewer women as you move up the ranks of seniority in science,” said Dr. Johnston. “Grants to women are smaller, and women are underrepresented in the most prominent positions of scientific authorship and as conference speakers.”
Dr. Alter struck an optimistic note: “Times are changing. We have so much more female faculty, we have so much more female representation on study sections, on peer review for journals.”
“I was a very timid person when I first started doing clinical work and I realized something about a patient that the rest of the team did not,” said Dr. Scully. “It was in that moment that I said, ‘Okay, get over yourself and start talking if you have something important to say.’”
amfAR thanks Pernod Ricard USA Prestige for their generous support of the event.