OMAHA, Neb — As the world is on lockdown due to the COVID-19 pandemic, a team of researchers at University of Nebraska Medical Center are making strides in eradicating a different, more deadly virus.
A potential drug is being tested that would revolutionize care for HIV/AIDS patients.
"I remember putting this patient on a respirator, gasping for breathe and barely alive," said Dr. Howard Gendelman, remembering what it was like working in a New York hospital during the HIV/AIDS epidemic in the early 80's.
"He said to me, 'Doctor, doctor, save me. I'm dying. Save me.' And I knew I couldn't save him, but doctors are supposed to save people," Gendelman said.
Watching young, healthy men die from, at the the time, an unknown infectious disease, had a long lasting effect on Dr. Gendelman.
"HIV hadn't even come, it was the AIDS virus," he said.
Around 40 years later, he, along with Dr. Benson Edagwa and a team of 21 other scientists at the University of Nebraska Medical Center, are on the frontlines of eradicating HIV/AIDS. It's a virus that kills around a million people a year.
"We came about this idea of creating a long-lasting medicine that would not only be used for HIV treatment, but would also prevent those at risk of getting or becoming infected," said Dr. Edagwa.
The team has developed a potential drug that could be given once a year, blocking the virus from entering human cells.
With a single shot a year, Dr. Edagwa says it completely changes the way they currently treat patients, even breaking down years of stigma attached to HIV/AIDS specifically aimed at gay men.
"I remember when I was growing up. We had many people in Africa dying of HIV," Dr. Edagwa said. " I remember my own uncle had HIV, so this guy was very close to us. When he got sick, everyone was trying to run away from him because we were kind of scared we would get sick. It was scary."
He adds the drug eliminates a daily pill, the stress of going to the pharmacy and gives sexual partners peace-of-mind.
"We are all living through the COVID-19 stage, where life has changed," said Dr. Gendelman. "But what is interesting for us is the kinds of therapies that we are developing, changing the chemical molecular structure of an existing drug, or drugs that may or may not be seen for human use, whether we can apply these technologies, these ideas to do broad research beyond HIV and AIDS."
He adds, in some ways this current pandemic reminds him of the early 1980's, when hospitals were inundated with AIDS patients, and doctors were struggling to find treatments.
"All we were able to do was provide symptomatic therapy, make people feel okay, better, alleviating pain," Dr. Gendelman said. "But, mostly we watched people die. It wasn't until 15 years later that we were actually able to intervene with anti-HIV drugs."
Something interesting to note, during the AIDS epidemic, Dr. Gendelman worked under Dr. Anthony Fauci, who's making headlines for his work with COVID-19.
Gendelman recalls an interaction he had with Fauci in the 1980's.
"He looked at me and said, 'what kind of scientist do you want to be?' I said Dr. Fauci, 'I'd like to be a good scientist, somebody that would make a difference, that would find answers for disease, therapies and maybe even change the world in some ways for the better.' He said, 'no, you don't understand. There are only two types of scientists in this world. There are scientists that read what others do, and the scientists that write what others will do."
Gendelman says they have not crossed the finish line, yet. The next step will be a clinical trial.
Last July, UNMC researchers were able to eradicate HIV/AIDS from a mouse.