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11.12.2013

UM Center for AIDS Research Hosts National Symposium

Some of the brightest minds in the battle against HIV and AIDS from across the United States convened in Miami for the 17th Annual Center for AIDS Research (CFAR) Scientific Symposium, held November 7 at the BankUnited Center on the Coral Gables campus.

Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., Senior Vice President for Medical Affairs and Dean of the Miller School of Medicine, extended a warm welcome to the more than 200 symposium attendees. Experts at the meeting included CFAR Directors from across the U.S., key representatives from the National Institutes of Health, and prominent researchers who revealed their latest discoveries regarding HIV/AIDS prevention, pathogenesis, vaccine development, infection reservoirs, and the search for a cure.

Recalling a very different scenario where little was known at the onset of the AIDS epidemic, Goldschmidt said, “It is amazing the work that has been done since, and the fact that once and for all the epidemic has been controlled in most of the world. Unfortunately, we need more progress to eradicate HIV and AIDS.”

“The battle against HIV/AIDS is a long one,” Savita Pahwa, M.D., professor of microbiology and immunology, medicine and pediatrics, and Director of the Miami Center for AIDS Research, said at the conference, the 2013 CFAR Annual Scientific Symposium – Confronting HIV: The Path Ahead. “It is shocking that 70 million people have been infected since the beginning of the epidemic. Even more shocking is that 35 million have died.” She added, however, that “the tide is now turning.”

Goldschmidt recognized Pahwa for providing the University with its first CFAR grant, “true recognition of the amazing work that has been done in the field by the University of Miami.” Novel collaborations with other institutions through the CFAR network should lead to more and faster discoveries, along with important studies under way at the UM Clinical and Translational Science Institute and ongoing research at the University of Miami. Together, Goldschmidt said, these efforts will “make a big difference in the HIV/AIDS field.”

Margaret Fischl, M.D., professor of medicine and Director of the AIDS Clinical Research Unit, and Mario Stevenson, Ph.D., professor of medicine and Chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases, are co-directors of the Miami CFAR.

A highlight of the symposium was an hour-long appearance by Earvin “Magic” Johnson — HIV/AIDS patient advocate, NBA legend, and founder of Magic Johnson Foundation. Listen to people with HIV and consider all their challenges – not just their treatment, Johnson said. Advocate for early testing and awareness – which he credits with saving his life. In addition, continue to combine research, patient-centered care, and community outreach to optimize the outcome for all people living with HIV and AIDS, he said.

“Magic Johnson is an extraordinary man who has been willing to be the face of HIV and AIDS,” Goldschmidt said. “As a patient advocate he’s pushing away the misconceptions and stigma associated with the disease, and demonstrating how to thrive in spite of it.” Goldschmidt presented Johnson with a University of Miami plaque to thank him for all his important work on behalf of people living with HIV.

“We are indebted to Magic Johnson for sharing his perspective on HIV/AIDS with us,” Pahwa said.

In a highly anticipated and interactive session, Johnson took the microphone off the podium and walked among physicians, researchers and other attendees. “We’ve done a lot of great work here in Miami and here at the University of Miami as well,” he said, before announcing an important milestone in publicly living with HIV infection. “Today is my anniversary; I announced 22 years ago on November 7th.”

Throughout the session, Johnson encouraged multiple questions, stopping to pose for photos and hug many people who asked for his advice on advocating for HIV prevention in schools, dispelling significant HIV stigma in minority communities, and translating important research findings into real-world solutions to improve the lives of people living with HIV or AIDS.

Presentation highlights from the symposium included Thomas J. Coates, Ph.D., from the University of California, Los Angeles, who highlighted the latest HIV prevention strategies; Guido Silvestri, M.D., from Emory University in Atlanta, and Scott Letendre, M.D., of the University of California, San Diego, who revealed HIV pathogenesis discoveries that could soon translate to effective clinical strategies; and Raymond Schinazi, Ph.D., a prolific researcher from Emory University who presented the Dr. Walter Scott Memorial Lecture, focusing on the role serendipity plays in important therapeutic discoveries he has made against both HIV and hepatitis C infections.

HIV vaccine updates were delivered by Louis Picker, M.D., Ph.D., of the Oregon Health & Science University, Dennis Burton, Ph.D., from Scripps Research Institute, and Ronald Desrosiers, Ph.D., professor of pathology at the Miller School. The symposium ended with discussions on HIV reservoirs, challenges and strategies for achieving a cure from Tae-Wook Chun, Ph.D., from the NIH, Nicolas Chomont, Ph.D., of the Vaccine & Gene Therapy Institute in Port St. Lucie, Florida, and Diana Finzi, Ph.D., M.P.H., from the NIH.

The symposium was part of a three-day national CFAR meeting, held this year in Miami. The national meeting included a Peer Mentoring Program workshop for the CFAR junior attendees, organized by Maria L. Alcaide, M.D., assistant professor of medicine at the Miller School, and Cynthia Pearson, Ph.D., from the University of Washington CFAR. The success of this workshop means it will likely be a feature of future meetings as well, Pahwa said.

Another highlight of the national meeting was advances shared by renowned national and international faculty at an AIDS Malignancy symposium. Enrique Mesri, Ph.D., associate professor of microbiology and immunology, and Juan Carlos Ramos, M.D., associate professor of medicine, both Miami CFAR investigators and leaders of a Miami CFAR scientific working group on AIDS Malignancy, organized this event in collaboration with the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center.

Despite the promise of Magic Johnson’s remarkable achievements while living with HIV and the potential of the cutting-edge research advances presented at the meeting, the event was not without a somber recognition of the fight remaining against HIV and AIDS. “It is only fitting that the one and only CFAR in Florida is right here in Miami,” Pahwa said. “There is no escaping the grim reality that the city, unfortunately, is the HIV/AIDS capital of the United States.”

“While we are at the epicenter of an epidemic,” Goldschmidt said, “we have a great opportunity to make a huge difference.”

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