Anyone can be a science hero. Often, when we think of a science hero, a researcher, educator, doctor, nurse, or engineer comes to mind. But science heroes are also the individuals who aren't acknowledged in author lists on breakthrough papers, and are rarely highlighted in the media. In fact, some of these science heroes are the very same people who participate in clinical trials, willing to sacrifice everything for science, even after science has appeared to fail them.
A new study in the describes six such science heroes, known as “The Last Gift” cohort. The goal of this study was to enhance our understanding of HIV reservoirs, which refers to deep tissues where HIV hides even during treatment and remission. Fluids, like blood, transport HIV, where it is easily studied, but little is known about HIV in stationary reservoirs like the kidney, liver, and spleen.
Understanding HIV dynamics, both where it travels and where it hides, is important in order to develop therapeutic approaches, but currently, the ability to investigate HIV reservoirs is only possible after death. By the time tissues are normally collected, the virus has generally degraded and further study is useless.
This cohort consisted of six individuals with HIV, who were also diagnosed with a terminal illness from a non-HIV condition, such as cancer. As part of the cohort, they consented to not only blood sampling during their life, but also donated their bodies for rapid autopsy immediately after death. In this study, researchers conducting autopsies found HIV in every one of the 28 reservoirs they tested. This means that in order to completely eliminate HIV, researchers will need to target all of its hideouts in order to eliminate the virus.
The Last Gift is an extremely appropriate way to refer to these science heroes. Even with the knowledge that they had a fatal disease and would be unable to experience a more effective HIV treatment, they donated their bodies to science so that others might be able to benefit. It’s important to thank the thousands of science heroes who have and will make similar sacrifices, like The Last Gift cohort.