Tell us about your current position
I am the executive director of the Perinatal HIV Research Unit, based on the campus of the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, South Africa, and the HVTN director of Africa Programs. For my HIV vaccine portfolio, my mandate is to oversee and support HVTN related HIV vaccine research and the development of young investigators, as well as supporting the establishment of laboratory infrastructure in South Africa to support HIV vaccine clinical research.
What is your background/training in?
I trained as a medical doctor, and specialised in Paediatrics. My initial focus was on the prevention of mother to child transmission of HIV. During this period of time, I received a Fogarty Fellowship, to train in clinical epidemiology at Cornell and Columbia University as a post-doctoral fellow. My expertise is in clinical trials and clinical epidmiology.
What other positions have you held and how have they influenced your career?
I co-founded the Perinatal HIV Research Unit in 1996, as a unit to study vertical transmission of HIV. As we were identifying many HIV infected children and their moms were ill, we became involved in therapuetic trials investigating antiretroviral therapy for children and their parents. We turned our attention to HIV prevention in 2000, and since then have been involved in HIV prevention research including HIV vaccine and microbicide research. We are also involved in socio-behavioural research and have a core interest in adolescents, and have been involved in research looking at adolescent risk behaviour and factors that influence this risk. We collaborate with scientists at the National Institute of Communicable Diseases in South Africa to better understand the factors that protect against HIV infection in infants, as well as to better understand the natural history of sexually acquired subtype C HIV infection. Being based in Soweto, which has an HIV prevalence of 10%, and where the prevalence of HIV is 30% amongst pregnant women, and being in the cold face of an HIV epidemic that affects men, women and children, trying to find solutions becomes a way of life. Research has been an important way to impact on the HIV epidemic in South Africa. Our research fndings have directly impacted on the lives of children and their families, and have lead to a reduction of HIV transmission in infants, improved infant survival and a better undestanding of the socio-cultural aspects of HIV that frame the epidemic in South Africa.
Doing HIV research in South Africa under the Mbeki adminstration was a challenge, since he was an AIDS denialist and tried to obstruct AIDS research in South Africa. Leading the HVTN 503/Phambili study, which was stopped after its companion study, the Step study showed futility and possible harm in a sub group of individuals, was one of the biggest challenges I faced as a scientist in South Africa.
Who or what had the greatest impact on your career?
As a young doctor, recently qualified as a paediatrician, I witnessed the HIV epidemic explode in the wards, where we cared for children. Because I had been a health activist under Apartheid, I immediately got involved in both activism and research. My first research project was to look at affordable ways to prevent mother to child transmission of HIV, and to assess whether women could safely formula feed their infants to prevent breast milk transmission. Being involved with HIV infected pregnant women and their babies, seeing some children escaping infection, and others getting HIV and dying as their were no antiretroviral therapy available at that time was the "event" that galvanised me to want to get involved in HIV prevention research, to find a vaccine that could stop all this.
What advice would you like to share with our readers who may be early in their careers?
Take time to understand how HIV affects the core fabric of some-one's life, and keep that in your mind, in the laboratory, in the clinic and in the field.
Prof. Glenda Gray is executive director of the Perinatal HIV Research Unit, based on the campus of the Chris Hani Baragwanath Hospital in Soweto, South Africa, and the HVTN director of Africa Programs.
Career Pathways is a series of stories highlighting career trajectories of highly respected individuals working in HIV vaccine research and development that gives a glimpse into the job possibilities, decision-making processes, and situations that got these individuals where they are today.