Conducting Research With a Heart: The stories of CROI 2016 Award Recipients

February 25, 2016

Morenike Ukpong, Associate Professor at Obafemi Awolowo University and Coordinator of the New HIV Vaccine and Microbicide Advocacy Society in Ife, Nigeria, writes why she believes CROI 2016 made strides in taking community concerns into consideration. This blog is one in a series written by community scholars who attended CROI 2016.

One of the struggles in the field of biomedical HIV prevention research for years has been the need for research teams to truly make people and communities a central theme in their work: think less about the data, publications, conference presentations and think more of the people you work with and work for. At 2016 CROI, I sincerely felt we have made significant positive strides in that area—not token forms of community engagement, but true consideration of concerns and interests of the people and communities through whom data for change are generated.

It started with Monday’s Workshop for New Investigators and Trainees where Sharon Hillier (MTN) clearly highlighted the significant role of community in changing the landscape of HIV prevention. At the same preconference meeting, Laurel Sprague (Sero Project), Sethembiso Mthembu (ICW) and Keith Green (University of Chicago) all brilliantly highlighted how the social context of the lives of people—our history, stress, experienced trauma, stigma people living with HIV and other vulnerable communities face—impact the way we as community members respond to research implementation. They discussed how this social context impacts on the truth generated through the data collected, and how research outcomes are translated and used by all of us in the community. And then, at the Clinical Trial Design workshop, Patrick Sullivan (Emory) reiterated the need to look for the human faces behind the big data you may want to use for making heroic public health changes—look for the faces in the data and ask their permission for the use of their data.

For me, the three speakers recognized for their work and who gave opening lectures at the 2016 conference were embodiments of this message of making people central to the theme of the research. We must conduct research to address human needs. “Think, plan and conduct it with them for them” was the clear message I heard.

Bruce Walker (Ragon Institute) discussed the FRESH study ongoing in South Africa where women undertook capacity-building programs, got empowered to get employment, yet contributed to a study that enabled researchers to detect acute infection and understand more about T-cell control for HIV vaccine and cure research. Of course, all HIV-positive persons got treatment immediately following diagnosis so that they could benefit from the outcome of the START study (which showed that starting HIV treatment immediately after diagnosis reduced the risk for HIV-associated diseases). Gerald Friedland (Yale) also discussed how he identified with the epidemic of HIV and tuberculosis in Bronx, USA and Tugela Ferry, South Africa where epidemics of poverty arising from neglect of people and their basic needs—health, housing, transport. Kenneth Cole also narrated how the concern for people, their lives and the need for HIV cure was central to his work at amfAR though he is a fashion designer. Clearly, we can all do something irrespective of our profession.

As I reflected on these great people, their talks, their programs and their passion, I conclude that my years of advocacy with many, many, many other brilliant advocates, to make people and communities central to the heart of research was (and still is) a worthy cause. Helping young investigators understand how the social context of people’s life need to inform the design and implementation of HIV treatment, prevention and cure research will truly get us to the end of the HIV epidemic sooner rather than later.