Science Book a Day Interviews Nathalia Holt


Special thanks to Nathalia Holt for answering 5 questions about her recently featured book – Cured: How the Berlin Patients Defeated HIV and Forever Changed Medical Science

Nathalia Holt is an award-winning research scientist specializing in HIV biology. Her research has led to major developments in the HIV gene therapy field.  She has trained at the Ragon Institute of Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT and Harvard University, the University of Southern California and Tulane University. – From Nathalia’s Homepage

Nathalia’s Homepage:
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#1 – What was the impetus for Cured?

We’ve cured two men cured of HIV and yet few outside the medical community are familiar with their stories. Understanding these cases and how they’re influencing research is key to ending AIDS. I wrote this book to shed light on the future of HIV medicine and explain how we got where we are today.

#2 – You trace the histories of the Berlin Patients and the researchers. Why did you find it important to flesh out the people on both sides of this equation?

Both the personal stories of the patients and their physicians are vital to their cures. This isn’t a story about a sterile clinical trial. Instead it’s about two young, inexperienced physicians who took incredible risks and designed innovative therapies for their individual patients. What happens to them in their personal lives is as much a part of their cures as the treatment itself.

#3 – How is our understanding of, and attitudes towards HIV different now (in the 2010s) compared to the previous two decades?

We’ve come so far in the past few decades. Where once those living with HIV faced extreme prejudice and hardship, today things have vastly improved. HIV can be diagnosed from a home kit bought in a drug store and the virus itself can be controlled with antiviral drugs for decades. We could have only dreamed of these advances in the 1980s. Unfortunately, there are still challenges. We see in young people an increasing apathy for the disease. This indifference has resulted in rising HIV infection in adolescents and young adults. The Centers for Disease Control estimates that 60% of HIV+ 13-24 year olds in the US don’t know they’re infected. Besides our scientific goals we also need to address these cultural issues.

#4 – You write about Big Pharma in your book.  How do they come across in your book? The bad guys? The good guys? Or something more complicated than that?

Large pharmaceutical companies have played an important role in HIV medicine, unfortunately not always for the better. In the book I discuss how their influence has sunk promising treatments simply because they are not profitable enough and their complicated relationship with HIV investigators. I also describe the little guys, “small pharma,” companies such as Sangamo and Calimmune who, along with their academic collaborators, are generating some of the most promising HIV cure clinical trial data we have today.

#5 – Are you working on a new project/book you can tell us about?

I’m working on my second book, tentatively titled Rise of the Rocket Girls: The Women Who Propelled Us from Missiles to the Moon to Mars. It tells the story of a group of female mathematicians, hired at the Jet Propulsion Laboratory in the 1940s and 1950s, whose calculations powered some of our greatest missions in space exploration including the first American satellite, missions to the Moon and Venus, Voyager and even Mars rovers today. Over the course of 50-60 year careers, the tight-knit group became the first computer engineers at the NASA institute. The book is told through their personal narratives, so we see how they balanced being moms in the 1950s with working until the wee hours of the morning at mission control. Through their stories, we gain a unique perspective on the role of women in science, both where we’ve been and in the far reaches of space where we’re heading. I’ve had a wonderful time getting to know this group of inspiring women and interviewing them for this project.

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