He’s so close.
Stuart Shapiro figures it’ll be no more than 10—maybe 15—years before there’s a vaccine to eradicate AIDS, the disease that killed his wife in 1996.
Medical advances are helping people live longer with AIDS, or acquired immune deficiency syndrome, which is caused by HIV (human immunodeficiency virus). Still, developing a vaccine remains a top priority because 2 million to 3 million people worldwide continue to be infected each year, says Shapiro, who leads a research team at NIH’s National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID) in Bethesda.
“I would be astounded if even 10 percent are getting effective treatment” in the developing world, he says. “It is still a pandemic.”
Shapiro’s late wife, Awuor (pronounced Ah-more), was from Kenya and just 39 when she died. Devastated by the loss and left to raise their 6-year-old daughter, Akinyi, on his own, Shapiro dedicated himself to stamping out the disease. A medical doctor with a doctorate in molecular biology, he had been on staff at the National Institutes of Health in Bethesda for eight years when Bethesda Magazine interviewed him in 2007. Six years later, the Rockville resident and his team are at work developing an AIDS vaccine at NIAID.
“It’s incredible to have a hand in…fighting and defeating the disease that killed my wife,” says Shapiro, 66, who hopes to continue his research until a vaccine is developed.
In 2005, Shapiro remarried after first getting the approval of his late wife’s relatives, as is customary in Kenya. His second wife, Jill Gay, is an independent consultant in public health and also works on HIV-related issues. Meanwhile, “my daughter has gone into the family business,” Shapiro says.
After graduating from Brown University with a degree in community health, Akinyi joined the Peace Corps in 2011 and, at 23, is working on AIDS prevention in Botswana, living in a small town where 60 percent of the population is HIV-positive. By comparison, less than 1 percent of the U.S. population is HIV-positive, Shapiro says.
Akinyi says her experience living in Botswana has left her feeling both guilty and incredibly lucky over her good fortune: She was one of the first babies of an AIDS-infected mother to be born HIV-free thanks to experimental antiretroviral treatments that her mother took during pregnancy. Today, the antiretroviral treatments are considered the standard of care for women of childbearing years who are HIV positive.
“So many people here [in Botswana] cannot escape the possibility of HIV infection as much as I did,” Akinyi wrote in an email from Africa during one of the rare moments she had access to the Internet.
After the Peace Corps, she hopes to attend law school and then focus her efforts on international constitutional law in Africa, specifically on sexual and reproductive rights.
Last December, Shapiro went to Africa to spend a month with Akinyi. The two traveled throughout Botswana and also went to Mozambique. There, they visited a clinic that will be a future trial site to test the AIDS vaccine, Shapiro says.
Then it was back to work for both father and daughter—work that no doubt would have made Awuor proud.