The challenges of HIV research today: Interview with Richard Harrigan

By Jenny Chik, Postdoctoral Fellow in Foster lab, CBR

Dr. Richard Harrigan, a member of the CBR, is a Professor in the Department of Medicine and the Director of Research Laboratories at the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS. He directs a lab with 3 postdoctoral fellows and 6 graduate students, focusing on monitoring drug resistance in HIV and hepatitis C.

Recently, we had the opportunity to interview Professor Harrigan about the present challenges and future of HIV research. The interview has been edited and trimmed for clarity and conciseness.

How did you come to be interested in HIV/AIDs?

People were dying of HIV in the early ‘90s and it was an area where it was clear that there needed to be a lot of research. I didn’t know that we were going to make so much progress, but I’m very glad that we did.

What is the main research focus of your lab?

We are developing tools for monitoring treatments of HIV and HCV (hepatitis C) – developing them from research and putting them into practice in the clinic.

In the general public’s mind, HIV is not the death sentence it used to be because of antiviral drugs. In your point of view, why is HIV/AIDs research still important today?

That’s a pretty easy one. It’s certainly true that the drugs available now are extending life – so that if you are HIV infected now, you can really expect to live as long as if you were uninfected. Our experience though is that there is a risk of developing resistance to the drugs. There are worries that the activity of the drugs may be lost through transmitted resistance. And if that happens, it would be terrible. Another reason to be interested is that we haven’t cured anyone of HIV. All we’ve done is suppress the replication of the virus. That’s pretty good, but not good enough.

If you had to name one key achievement that you are the most proud of, what would that be?

It’s watching the accredited laboratory testing of patient samples and see things going from just an idea, to a test in development, to a validated test, then to a test that is in use by patients in real time – that is something that I find most rewarding.

What is the future of HIV research?

What we hope for, but I think will be excruciatingly difficult, is to have some sort of practical cure for HIV. I am not convinced that this will come in the short term. What we can do with the efforts that we are making as a province is to reduce the number of cases of AIDS to virtually zero and continue to reduce the number of new infections with HIV. While we don’t cure anybody, we can do some tremendous good. We’ve been watching over the past 10-15 years; and the number of new cases is steadily decreasing, so it’s pretty much a huge victory – so far. That all depends on the drugs continuing to work.

Do you have any final thoughts or comments?

We have made tremendous strides in HIV. But as the perception of this being a public health emergency drops, so too does the coverage of the disease in the media. And then people stop paying attention. If you stop paying attention, you are in trouble. We must continue to work hard to reduce the risk through behavioural changes, better drugs, and any other modality that we can envisage.

We thank Professor Richard Harrigan for his time and involvement in this interview.