Interview with an AIDS researcher

Posted on June 24, 2010 by Lana Lile

In anticipation of National HIV Testing Day this Sunday, an interview with Joseph Rower, a Lutheran PhD student currently conducting HIV and AIDS research…

What exactly are you studying right now and where?

I am a PhD student in the Pharmaceutical Sciences at the University of Colorado Denver Anschutz Medical Campus…  The laboratory I work in, and thus my thesis work, focuses on understanding the pharmacology (essentially how the body acts on a drug and how a drug affects the body) of antiretroviral drugs used to treat HIV and Hepatitis.

How did you end up working in an HIV and AIDS lab?

I chose this lab because of its emphasis on clinically relevant research.  We do a significant amount of work with humans-including those who are HIV infected and taking medications-and I enjoy being able to make a direct positive impact on someone’s life.  In fact, part of my research will focus on interacting with HIV patients and determining what life is like while taking these drugs, i.e. how their daily routine is affected, what drug-related side effects do they have to manage, and getting a patient’s opinion on what successful treatment or management of HIV truly is.

What are you currently researching?

My research revolves around two drugs-zidovudine (ZDV) and lamivudine (3TC) -which have historically been used here in the US as the backbone of HIV treatment, but due to troubling safety profiles (ZDV commonly causes nausea, and has been shown to contribute muscle degradation and AIDS related dementias) they have been phased out in favor of safer drugs. However, they are still utilized in special settings (i.e. pregnant women, infants, drug resistant patients in the US, and as the standard of care in resource poor countries) and so an understanding of how to best minimize the resulting toxicities while still maintaining efficacy is crucial.  As such, my project focuses on determining what concentrations of the drug are necessary in the body to maintain efficacy while minimizing if not eliminating serious toxicities.

I’m especially interested in these drugs because of their relevancy to the resource poor setting.  ZDV and 3TC are made available to poor patients in African countries at a cost of $1 a day, whereas the newer drugs have yet to be made affordable enough for this setting, and cost up to $1000 for a month’s supply. It is crucial that we fully understand these two drugs so as to benefit those who have no other choice but to be treated with these drugs.

How does your work/research relate to your sense of vocation?

I’ve always felt called to service, starting with volunteering in homeless shelters as a youth, traveling to Mexico with my church youth group to build a house for a family, to taking advantage of the many opportunities offered at CLU by the Community Service Center.  I’ve also always felt blessed to both enjoy and be skilled in the sciences (I can thank my dad for that one).  Growing up, I always knew God was saying, “here is this gift for you, use it well”, and then when my grandfather began suffering from a form of muscular dystrophy that lacks a treatment, I knew that He was saying, “here’s how”.  He made it pretty clear that He gave me the gift of science knowledge and passion to help His children that suffer from disease.  From there doors just kept opening, the latest being this lab…

What has been the most powerful thing you have learned through your research and classes?

Oh man, that is a tough one…I guess on the surface it’s been amazing to dive in and try to fully understand how complex and intricately built the human body is.  Everything has purpose, and is there for a reason, just like every person makes up the body of Christ for a reason and with purpose. It’s just amazing to think about how amazingly detailed and intricate and complicated our body is, and how good our body is at what it does, with so many places that errors and mistakes could be made.

Is there an interesting fact you would like to share?

One of the first lessons I learned when I started in the lab is that everything matters.  Everything.  My work involves quantifying miniscule amounts of drug that successfully stop HIV from replicating inside a human body.  To put that in perspective, it’s like one pebble, out of an entire beach of sand, stopping the ocean from flooding the shoreline.  It really illustrates one of my favorite stories of a man who stumbles upon an enormous stack of starfish left on the beach by a receding tide.  When asked why he was throwing the starfish back into the water, as he couldn’t possibly make a difference to the entire pile of starfish, the man responds that he made a difference to the one starfish he just threw back in.  Just so, every action we make makes a difference in someone’s life, no matter how seemingly small or insignificant.

What keeps you going?

As of December 2008, the World Health Organization reported that 33.4 million individuals were living with HIV.  It’s estimated that 80-90% would be considered resource poor and unable to afford top of the line treatments.  Need I say more?

Thank you so much for taking the time for this interview!

Joseph is a member of St. Philip Lutheran in Littleton, CO, and an alum of California Lutheran University where he earned his Bachelor’s degree in Chemistry and Math.

~Lana Lile