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Wistar Science – Unlocking the Mystery and Power of Elite Controllers

November 29, 2022

Dr. Leila Giron, staff scientist in the Abdel-Mohsen laboratory, is searching for an HIV cure. From Brazil, Giron earned her bachelor’s in Biomedical Sciences in 2009 followed by a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in Infectious Diseases in 2017. She joined Wistar as a postdoctoral fellow in December 2017. Currently, her work focuses on the biological mechanisms of a specific population of people—called elite controllers—whose immune system can control HIV.

In a Q&A with Dr. Giron, she discusses her scientific background, impacts of her research, and the persistence and drive it takes to pursue early-stage discovery and cures.

Did you come from a family of scientists? Who inspired you growing up to pursue science?

No, I am the first scientist in my family. I think I always knew that I would work in the scientific research field, particularly biology. I was always curious to understand how our body works and what happens during diseases. I was once in a virology class and was amazed by how viruses work. At that time, oncology and virology were the two topics that intrigued me the most, so I studied oncogenic viruses – virus that causes cancer – in people living with HIV as I pursued a bachelor’s degree. After that, I focused on HIV research, amazed by how the virus can overthrow cellular machinery to its advantage and manipulate the host immune system in ways that I was eager to investigate.

What drew you to Wistar and what do you like about working here?

Wistar is a highly collaborative, top-notch scientific environment that constantly stimulates, challenges, and drives me scientifically.

Are there any differences or unique experiences you’ve had working in science in the U.S. compared to Brazil?

During my Ph.D. I spent a year at the Vitalant Institute at UCSF as part of the Brazilian Government’s “Doctoral Sandwich Program” I won a scholarship to carry out part of my doctoral research abroad. At the end of the internship, I returned to Brazil to finish and defend my Ph.D. thesis. By then, I wanted to go back to the U.S. to pursue the highest level of scientific research. Unfortunately in Brazil, securing a postdoctoral position in science and with enough funds to perform high-quality science is challenging. Leaving my country and family was not easy, but science fulfills me, and I cannot see myself in another career.

What are you working on right now?

In the vast majority of people living with HIV, the viral load goes back up very quickly after stopping therapy regardless of how many years a person is on treatment. However, there is a rare population of individuals termed “post-treatment controllers” who can control the virus for a long time after stopping therapy. My goal is to understand what determines this phenomenon, with the overall goal to apply it in other HIV individuals so they can achieve a functional cure.

Recently we analyzed samples from those post-treatment controllers and compared them to people who cannot control the virus and found high levels of certain metabolites in the plasma part of their blood. When I tested these metabolites, I found that they have a direct impact in inhibiting HIV. The goal of my current study is to understand the mechanism of action of this phenomenon so we can develop therapeutics that can take advantage of this.

What is your favorite part of your role and your day?

The coolest thing about being a scientist and finding out new things is that for a small period of time, you are the only one that knows about this scientific discovery!

What advice do you have for someone who wants to pursue science?

First, be persistent and resilient. Be creative and bold, and don’t be afraid to pursue new ideas even if they fail later. It is all a part of the process.

Congratulations on receiving the Wistar Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion Travel award. What does this opportunity mean for you?

I am currently a staff scientist funded by two small grants. At this stage of my career, in between dependency to independency, it is very important to attend meetings like the Society for Leukocyte Biology 2022 conference (which I received the award for), build my independent view of the field, and establish new connections to create collaborations and apply for bigger grants that support funds for traveling.