Wistar Scientists Honored, Speak at AIDS Education Month Event
Pride Month in Philadelphia, PA, is celebrated alongside another worthy cause: AIDS Education Month, an event series organized by the nonprofit Philadelphia FIGHT to raise awareness of those living with AIDS, AIDS treatments & healthcare and AIDS research. The Wistar Institute has collaborated with Philadelphia FIGHT for decades to advance their mission to cure HIV/AIDS.
At the opening celebration for AIDS Education Month on Thursday, June 1st, Philly FIGHT honored two Wistar senior scientists for their decades of contribution to HIV/AIDS research. Drs. Livio Azzoni and Emmanouil Papasavvas — each a senior scientist in the HIV program and Wistar Montaner Lab — received the Kiyoshi Kuromiya award, which honors a community Philadelphia activist, Kiyoshi Kuromiya that galvanized national and global awareness to the needs of persons living with HIV. Kuromiya organized with the Gay Liberation Front for gay rights and founded the Philly chapter of ACT UP to advocate for those impacted by the AIDS epidemic, and the award bearing his name recognizes those who have similarly impacted our community and made a difference to the lives of persons living with HIV.
Dr. Papasavvas was moved by the honor, and he took the opportunity to thank everyone involved in the collaborative work of the research process: “Research is not working alone; we all work together, trying to find the path to discover cures for all diseases, and right now, for HIV.”
Upon accepting his award, Dr. Azzoni also emphasized the teamwork necessary for science by speaking to the importance of both institutional support and patient focus in the search for an AIDS cure: “By doing patient-oriented research, we aim at involving all stakeholders in all stages, from design to implementation.” Both men received standing ovations from the crowd.
Dr. Montaner then joined the stage to participate in a panel discussion titled “The Evolution of HIV Research,” where he was accompanied by moderator and Director of the Philadelphia Department of Public Health’s Division of HIV Health, Dr. Kathleen A. Brady; Chief Scientific Officer and Medical Director of the Jonathan Lax Treatment Center, Dr. Karam Mounzer; Philadelphia FIGHT Director of Research, Emily Hiserodt, MPH; and longtime AIDS advocate, survivor and Chair of the BEAT-HIV Community Advisory Board, William Carter.
The panel sought to answer a compelling question: in the context of medical advances, why is research that seeks an HIV cure still important?
Panelists’ answers addressed several areas. William Carter, as an AIDS survivor, pointed out that an absolute cure would eliminate his need to take medication on an indefinite basis or receive regular bloodwork. Dr. Mounzer spoke to the fact that functional remission, while a tremendous achievement, still comes with reduced life expectancy and general stressors — like comorbidities and side-effects from the maintenance medications — relative to the HIV-negative population.
Dr. Montaner agreed with his fellow panelists on these points and expressed his belief in the macroscopic utility of reaching an HIV cure:
“First, investments made in understanding how HIV persists in somebody over a lifetime have benefited Society as a whole. We have one clear example: COVID. The clinical trials network and trained staff that supported COVID vaccine trials was made possible by the infrastructure that was already in place supporting studies on developing an HIV vaccine or novel therapies.
Second, reaching an HIV cure will hopefully remove the stigma directed towards persons living with HIV.”
Finally, scientific advances in one area of human health, Dr. Montaner emphasized, do not simply remain there: they carry over to different areas of study and move those fields forward, too. “If we can crack chronic infection in those living with HIV — or even just get closer towards that cure — we’re going to get insights into how to advance research into added diseases at the same time.”