Northwestern HIV researchers navigate additional pandemic stressors, explore new research frameworks among twin epidemics


Daily file illustration by Olivia Abeyta

Feinberg Prof. Thomas Hope said the COVID-19 pandemic has helped epidemiology researchers re-evaluate traditional expectations of what a vaccine can and should look like. He hopes this experience will help progress HIV research as well.

Yiming Fu, Print Managing Editor

Feinberg Prof. Judd Hultquist’s lab typically focuses on HIV research. But after the COVID-19 pandemic began, he also had to allocate time and resources toward researching the new virus and processing COVID-19 tests. 

Managing the dual tasks over the last two years has been stressful, he said.

“On top of trying to contribute to our understanding of SARS-CoV-2, we’re also people worried about our own safety and our own lives,” Hultquist said. “Balancing and trying to take care of all of the people who are working on my team, making sure that they’re taking the rest that they need and that they’re protecting themselves … was an immense challenge.”  

Knowledge gained from decades of HIV research has informed the country’s COVID-19 response, Hultquist said, and new research methods emerging through the pandemic may also lead to innovations in HIV prevention and treatment. 

Hultquist’s lab’s recent work has used CRISPR, a gene-editing platform, to identify host cells in which HIV can live. Feinberg and McCormick Prof. Thomas Hope lab’s recent work looks at mast cells, which enable the immune system to fight viruses like HIV, and Feinberg Prof. Richard D’Aquila’s lab’s recent work looks at a family of proteins that can fight off viruses.

All three labs seek different ways to cure HIV, and they often work together to write grants, sponsor studies, present work and collaborate through the Third Coast Center of AIDS Research, a collaborative network of HIV/AIDS researchers in the greater Chicago area. 

As national attention and resources have been focused on COVID-19 the past two years, Hultquist said it’s important to acknowledge that the HIV epidemic persists. 

About 1.5 million new cases of HIV were reported in the last year alone, he said, and while new drugs have dramatically changed lives of people living with HIV, the field needs longer-lasting formulations and new therapeutic strategies to work on a cure. 

Feinberg Prof. Chisu Song, who works in D’Aquila’s lab, said research materials ordered during the pandemic often took much longer to arrive due to supply chain issues. Many of the supplies that arrived went toward COVID-19 research instead of HIV research, he added. 

“It was like a shock,” Song said. “Everybody, everything stopped. But we slowly learned how to do it, even without the right tools. So we’re adapting too.”

Feinberg third-year Ph.D. candidate William Cisneros, who works in Hultquist’s lab, said he spent the most time working at the lab during the peak of the pandemic, when residents were generally urged to stay at home and quarantine. 

Feinberg Prof. Ann Carias, who works in Hope’s lab, said it was hard to divert attention away from the research for which she had poured hours of effort into writing grants, but it was also invigorating to take the tools she developed and apply them to addressing a global pandemic. 

Hope said he hopes scientists will be more open to new ideas to cure HIV given the lessons learned from the COVID-19 pandemic. One of these new ideas includes the re-conceptualization of what a vaccine is and can do. 

“We’re sort of spoiled by these vaccines that are easy to make like measles and mumps,” Hope said, “and sometimes all you get from the vaccine is less disease, not necessarily no symptoms.” 

Cisneros said more incoming graduate students have been interested in immunology since COVID-19 first emerged, creating a more diverse class because more voices are at the table. 

He said there’s a stark lack of diversity in science, with most of the field being white-male driven at the moment. White men make up about half of all people employed in science and engineering occupations, according to data from a National Science Foundation report.

“Having all these new ideas around is always a good thing for science,” Cisneros said. “Not every idea works, but having more ideas, generally, you know, increases the amount of research that pushes things forward.”

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