This doctor saw AIDS firsthand in its darkest hour. Now he's helping make an HIV vaccine.

Dr. Anthony Fauci remembers the first AIDS patient he ever met.

Fauci at a conference in 2015. Photo from Bluerasberry/Wikimedia Commons.

It was 1981. A young man walked into Fauci's office. He was very sick and getting worse. Among his other maladies, an opportunistic infection was attacking his retinas — the man was going blind right in front of Fauci. But there wasn't anything Fauci could do for him.


At the time, doctors didn't even know what AIDS was. It would be a year before the term was even invented.

"It was a very painful and very frustrating because, you know, when you're a physician you're trained as a healer," said Fauci. But he couldn't heal this young man. The patient eventually died of the disease.

"That was the first of several thousand patients I've seen over the last 35 years," Fauci said.

But Fauci didn't give up.

Now, more than 30 years after Fauci met that patient, we may be well on the way to stopping AIDS, thanks to a new vaccine.

Photo from Mujahid Safodien/AFP/Getty Images.

Today, Fauci is the director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID). They work to treat and prevent a wide range of diseases, including HIV/AIDS.

Thanks to the work of the NIAID and a whole host of other doctors, scientists, and organizations, our relationship to HIV/AIDS has completely changed since the early '80s. We can track its movements, prevent its spread, and use drugs to de-fang it once it's in the body.

But a vaccine — that holy grail of medicine — has remained elusive. So far, at least.

All that might change, though. A new HIV vaccine trial, known as HVTN 702, has just started, supported in part by Fauci and the NIAID. It's the most hopeful trial yet, based on an attempt from 2009 that lowered HIV infections rates by about 30%.

That first try was exciting, but it wasn't quite good enough to distribute, so Fauci and his team are hoping that this new trial could be the kicker.

For the site of the drug trial, the scientists chose South Africa, a nation that's been hit especially hard by HIV.

A Cape Town pharmacist checks documents on a fridge holding the vaccine. Photo by AP Photo/Schalk van Zuydam.

Fauci and the NIAID aren't the only ones working on this. Dr. Gita Ramjee is the director of South African Medical Research Council’s HIV Prevention Research Unit. She's been working on HIV prevention for years.

Ramjee explained that the location of the trial is significant. Worldwide, HIV/AIDS affects about 37 million people. 7 million of those cases are in South Africa. The country sees about 1,000 new infections every day, and women are especially at risk.

"In Southern Africa, the face of the epidemic is a woman's face," said Ramjee. That's partly due to biological factors, but also social ones. Women don't always have the power to negotiate condom use with their partner, for example, and there may be stigma around getting preventive care.

Ramjee is one of the scientists who has been trying hardest to help these women for years. She joined the vaccine push because she wanted to explore new ways to help people prevent infection and because she's seen the costs of HIV/AIDS far too many times.

"Seeing these women in person, seeing a 16- or 18-year-old already coming to the clinic HIV-positive, it's really, really heartbreaking," said Ramjee.

That's why it's encouraging to see just how big this trial is. South Africa's response recruited over 5,000 volunteers to take part.

One of the trial's 5,400 volunteers at an event in Soshanguve, South Africa. Photo from Mujahid Safodien/AFP/Getty Images.

As part of this latest trial, South Africa enrolled 5,400 sexually active men and women. Half will get the vaccine, half will get a placebo. All will be offered established HIV prevention methods.

The trials will test the efficacy of the vaccine, and they'll also test for any possible side effects. The first patient was enrolled on Oct. 26, 2016. Results are expected in late 2020.

Fauci and Ramjee aren't making any predictions just yet, but both noted how huge an even moderate win could be.

Photo from Mujahid Safodien/AFP/Getty Images.

"Having a vaccine, even if it's 50% efficacious, it's going to add to the toolbox that we have," said Ramjee.

Existing treatment and prevention methods such as condom use or vaginal rings have been able to take the edge off the infection rate, but they haven't been able to completely reverse the disease's trajectory. But immunization is a powerful tool, and added to our repertoire — well, that could be what finally tips the scales. It could be, as both Fauci and Ramjee said, the final nail in HIV's coffin.

Yes, this trial could fail, but even if it doesn't, it's heartening to talk to folks who will keep going until one does. Research is, after all, a learning process.

"Irrespective of what the results are — positive or negative or moderate — we're going to learn a lot," Ramjee said.

That's pretty cool. And on the cusp of this huge trial, it's also worth celebrating just how far we've come since the virus first appeared.

Fauci still sees HIV patients in the very same room where he first met that first patient more than 30 years ago. He said the advancements in HIV/AIDS care he's seen has been nothing short of breathtaking.

HIV/AIDS was once a death sentence. Today, with the right care, people can live long, happy, healthy, essentially normal lives. And we continue to see amazing strides in care, even now.

"It's been a tremendous, extraordinary evolution," he said.

Since his first hit single "Keep Your Head Up" in 2011, award-winning multi-platinum recording artist Andy Grammer has made a name for himself as the king of the feel-good anthem. From "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah)" to "Honey, I'm Good" to "Back Home" and more, his positive, upbeat songs have blared on beaches and at backyard barbecues every summer.

So what does a singer who loves to perform in front of live audiences and is known for uplifting music do during an unexpectedly challenging year of global pandemic lockdown?

He goes inward.

Grammer told Upworthy that losing the ability to perform during the pandemic forced him to look at where his self-worth came from. "I thought I would have scored better, to be honest," he says. "Like, 'Oh, I get it from all the important, right places!' And then it's taken all away in one moment, and you're like, 'Oh, nope, I was getting a lot from that.'

"It's kind of cool to break all the way down and then hopefully put myself back together in a way that's a little more solid," he says.

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Since his first hit single "Keep Your Head Up" in 2011, award-winning multi-platinum recording artist Andy Grammer has made a name for himself as the king of the feel-good anthem. From "Good to Be Alive (Hallelujah)" to "Honey, I'm Good" to "Back Home" and more, his positive, upbeat songs have blared on beaches and at backyard barbecues every summer.

So what does a singer who loves to perform in front of live audiences and is known for uplifting music do during an unexpectedly challenging year of global pandemic lockdown?

He goes inward.

Grammer told Upworthy that losing the ability to perform during the pandemic forced him to look at where his self-worth came from. "I thought I would have scored better, to be honest," he says. "Like, 'Oh, I get it from all the important, right places!' And then it's taken all away in one moment, and you're like, 'Oh, nope, I was getting a lot from that.'

"It's kind of cool to break all the way down and then hopefully put myself back together in a way that's a little more solid," he says.

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Each year, an estimated 1.8 million people in the United States are affected by cancer — most commonly cancers of the breast, lung, prostate, and blood cancers such as leukemia. While not everyone overcomes the disease, thanks to science, more people are surviving — and for longer — than ever before in history.

We asked three people whose lives have been impacted by cancer to share their stories – how their lives were changed by the disease, and how they're using that experience to change the future of cancer treatments with the hope that ultimately, in the fight against cancer, science will win. Here's what they had to say.

Celine Ryan, 55, engineer database programmer and mother of five from Detroit, MI

Photo courtesy of Celine Ryan

In September 2013, Celine Ryan woke up from a colonoscopy to some traumatic news. Her gastroenterologist showed her a picture of the cancerous mass they found during the procedure.

Ryan and her husband, Patrick, had scheduled a colonoscopy after discovering some unusual bleeding, so the suspicion she could have cancer was already there. Neither of them, however, were quite prepared for the results to be positive -- or for the treatment to begin so soon. Just two days after learning the news, Ryan had surgery to remove the tumor, part of her bladder, and 17 cancerous lymph nodes. Chemotherapy and radiation soon followed.

Ryan's treatment was rigorous – but in December 2014, she got the devastating news that the cancer, once confined to her colon, had spread to her lungs. Her prognosis, they said, was likely terminal.

But rather than give up hope, Ryan sought support from online research, fellow cancer patients and survivors, and her medical team. When she brought up immunotherapy to her oncologist, he quickly agreed it was the best course of action. Ryan's cancer, like a majority of colon and pancreatic cancers, had been caused by a defect on the gene KRAS, which can result in a very aggressive cancer that is virtually "undruggable." According to the medical literature, the relatively smooth protein structure of the KRAS gene meant that designing inhibitors to bind to surface grooves and treat the cancer has been historically difficult. Through her support systems, Ryan discovered an experimental immunotherapy trial at the National Institutes of Health (NIH) in Bethesda, MD., and called them immediately to see if she was eligible. After months of trying to determine whether she was a suitable candidate for the experimental treatment, Ryan was finally accepted.

The treatment, known as tumor-infiltrating lymphocyte therapy, or TIL, is a testament to how far modern science has evolved. With this therapy, doctors remove a tumor and harvest special immune cells that are found naturally in the tumor. Doctors then grow the cells in a lab over the next several weeks with a protein that promotes rapid TIL growth – and once the cells number into the billions, they are infused back into the patient's body to fight the cancer. On April 1, 2015, Ryan had her tumor removed at the NIH. Two months later, she went inpatient for four weeks to have the team "wash out" her immune system with chemotherapy and infuse the cells – all 148 billion of them – back into her body.

Six weeks after the infusion, Ryan and Patrick went back for a follow-up appointment – and the news they got was stunning: Not only had no new tumors developed, but the six existing tumors in her lungs had shrunk significantly. Less than a year after her cell infusion, in April 2016, the doctors told Ryan news that would have been impossible just a decade earlier: Thanks to the cell infusion, Ryan was now considered NED – no evaluable disease. Her body was cancer-free.

Ryan is still NED today and continuing annual follow-up appointments at the NIH, experiencing things she never dreamed she'd be able to live to see, such as her children's high school and college graduations. She's also donating her blood and cells to the NIH to help them research other potential cancer treatments. "It was an honor to do so," Ryan said of her experience. "I'm just thrilled, and I hope my experience can help a lot more people."

Patrice Lee, PhD, VP of Pharmacology, Toxicology and Exploratory Development at Pfizer

Photo courtesy of Patrice Lee

Patrice Lee got into scientific research in an unconventional way – through the late ocean explorer Jacques Cousteau.

Lee never met Cousteau but her dreams of working with him one day led her to pursue a career in science. Initially, Lee completed an undergraduate degree in marine biology; eventually, her interests changed and she decided to get a dual doctoral degree in physiology and toxicology at Duke University. She now works at Pfizer's R&D site in Boulder, CO (formerly Array BioPharma), leading a group of scientists who determine the safety and efficacy of new oncology drugs.

"Scientists focused on drug discovery and development in the pharmaceutical industry are deeply committed to inventing new therapies to meet unmet needs," Lee says, describing her field of work. "We're driven to achieve new medicines and vaccines as quickly as possible without sacrificing safety."

Among the drugs Lee has helped develop during her career, including cancer therapies, she says around a dozen are currently in development, while nine have received FDA approval — an incredible accomplishment as many scientists spend their careers without seeing their drug make it to market. Lee's team is particularly interested in therapies for brain metastases — something that Lee says is a largely unmet need in cancer research, and something her team is working on from a variety of angles. "Now that we've had rapid success with mRNA vaccine technology, we hope to explore what the future holds when applying this technology to cancers," Lee says.

But while evaluating potential cancer therapies is a professional passion of Lee's, it's also a mission that's deeply personal. "I'm also a breast cancer survivor," she says. "So I've been on the other side of things and have participated in a clinical trial."

However, seeing how melanoma therapies that she helped develop have affected other real-life cancer patients, she says, has been a highlight of her career. "We had one therapy that was approved for patients with BRAF-mutant metastatic melanoma," Lee recalls. "Our team in Boulder was graced by a visit from a patient that had benefited from these drugs that we developed. It was a very special moment for the entire team."

None of these therapies would be available, Lee says without rigorous science behind it: "Facts come from good science. Facts will drive the development of new drugs, and that's what will help patients."

Chiuying "Cynthia" Kuk (they/them) MS, 34, third-year medical student at Michigan State University College of Human Medicine

Photo courtesy of Cynthia Kuk

Cynthia Kuk was just 10 years old when they had a conversation that would change their life forever.

"My mother, who worked as a translator for the government at the time, had been diagnosed with breast cancer, and after her chemotherapy treatments she would get really sick," Kuk, who uses they/them pronouns, recalls. "When I asked my dad why mom was puking so much, he said it was because of the medicine she was taking that would help her get better."

Kuk's response was immediate: "That's so stupid! Why would a medicine make you feel worse instead of better? When I'm older, I want to create medicine that won't make people sick like that."

Nine years later, Kuk traveled from their native Hong Kong to the United States to do exactly that. Kuk enrolled in a small, liberal arts college for their Bachelor's degree, and then four years later started a PhD program in cancer research. Although Kuk's mother was in remission from her cancer at the time, Kuk's goal was the same as it had been as a 10-year-old watching her suffer through chemotherapy: to design a better cancer treatment, and change the landscape of cancer research forever.

Since then, Kuk's mission has changed slightly.

"My mom's cancer relapsed in 2008, and she ended up passing away about five years after that," Kuk says. "After my mom died, I started having this sense of urgency. Cancer research is such that you work for twenty years, and at the end of it you might have a fancy medication that could help people, but I wanted to help people now." With their mother still at the forefront of their mind, Kuk decided to quit their PhD program and enter medical school.

Now, Kuk plans to pursue a career in emergency medicine – not only because they are drawn to the excitement of the emergency room, but because the ER is a place where the most marginalized people tend to seek care.

"I have a special interest in the LGBTQ+ population, as I identify as queer and nonbinary," says Kuk. "A lot of people in this community and other marginalized communities access care through the ER and also tend to avoid medical care since there is a history of mistreatment and judgement from healthcare workers. How you carry yourself as a doctor, your compassion, that can make a huge difference in someone's care."

In addition to making a difference in the lives of LGBTQ+ patients, Kuk wants to make a difference in the lives of patients with cancer as well, like their mother had.

"We've diagnosed patients in the Emergency Department with cancer before," Kuk says. "I can't make cancer good news but how you deliver bad news and the compassion you show could make a world of difference to that patient and their family."

During their training, Kuk advocates for patients by delivering compassionate and inclusive care, whether they happen to have cancer or not. In addition to emphasizing their patient's pronouns and chosen names, they ask for inclusive social and sexual histories as well as using gender neutral language. In doing this, they hope to make medicine as a whole more accessible for people who have been historically pushed aside.

"I'm just one person, and I can't force everyone to respect you, if you're marginalized," Kuk says. "But I do want to push for a culture where people appreciate others who are different from them."