Working as a physician at an HIV clinic in Durham, North Carolina, from 1998 to 2004 brought Babafemi Taiwo, MBBS, ’06 GME, onto the front lines of the global HIV/AIDS epidemic.
At that time, scientists had shown the disease was treatable, but only with a toxic cocktail of drugs with onerous side effects. Patients faced extreme stigma and often viewed their condition as a death sentence, explains Taiwo. So did their clinicians. The situation was even more desperate in resource-poor countries, where the disease was spreading rapidly.
Instead of deterring Taiwo, these difficulties and the prospect of making a global impact drew him to HIV/AIDS research.
“It was a field that was rapidly evolving, and there were many opportunities for progress to be made,” he says.
Since then, Taiwo has built a reputation as a leader in international HIV/AIDS research and as a mentor at Northwestern, which he joined in 2005 as a fellow. Now, he hopes to bring his drive to tackle complex clinical problems to his role as chief of Infectious Diseases in Feinberg’s Department of Medicine. In this position, he hopes to further Northwestern’s reputation as a national leader in advancing infectious disease care and research, and to take on emerging issues in infectious diseases such as multidrug resistant bacteria.
Towards a Cure
Taiwo notes that since his time in North Carolina, advances in HIV care have transformed the disease into a treatable chronic illness.
“We have come a long way: HIV can now be treated with a single tablet in most cases and the side effects are minimal if any,” Taiwo says. “The questions shaping the field now have to do with whether we can use fewer drugs to achieve the same or better results; how to prevent new infections; ways to further protect patients from end organ injury from HIV; and ultimately how we can cure infected individuals.”
His own research includes one of the “insidious consequences” of HIV infection — neurocognitive deficits. Prior to the existence of modern HIV regimens, many patients developed AIDS-associated dementia, explains Taiwo’s colleague Frank Palella Jr., MD, ’90, ’92 GME, the Potocsnak Family C.S.C. Professor of Medicine. As treatments have improved, the signs of neurocognitive deficits in patients with AIDS have become subtler, but remain important for clinicians to manage, Palella says.
After infection, the HIV virus rapidly establishes itself in the brain, where it is protected from antiretroviral drugs by the blood-brain barrier. Finding ways to eliminate the HIV virus hiding in the brain is not only important for a patient’s quality of life, Taiwo says, it is also vital to curing the disease. He explains that even if a cure was developed it might not be able to cross the blood-brain barrier, leaving the virus a place to hide.
“It may grandstand in the brain until we learn how to break into the blood-brain barrier without damaging it,” he says.
To help address the ongoing spread of HIV in Chicago and beyond, Taiwo will continue supporting Northwestern’s work through the Third Coast Center for AIDS Research (CFAR), a collaborative project between Northwestern, the University of Chicago, the Chicago Department of Public Health, the AIDS Foundation of Chicago, the Alliance of Chicago Community Health Services, and the Center on Halsted. A five-year $6.25 million grant from the National Institutes of Health helped get the project off the ground in 2015. A key goal for CFAR, led by co-directors Richard D’Aquila, MD, and Brian Mustanski, PhD, is facilitating research that can help end the spread of HIV in Chicago, particularly among men who have sex with men, a group that has experienced increased infection rates.
Beyond HIV/AIDS, Taiwo wants to incorporate genomics, proteomics and microbiomics into emerging infectious disease threats. For example, he’d like to use tools from these new disciplines to find ways to combat multidrug resistant gram-negative bacteria, a growing concern in U.S. healthcare facilities, and to promote the development of rapid diagnostics.
Taiwo’s energy, intelligence and openness when working with colleagues will help him meet these ambitious goals, Palella says.
“He has an enthusiasm that is extremely motivating,” Palella says.
Bridging the Divide
Another asset Taiwo brings to his new role is international perspective. He grew up in Nigeria and studied medicine at the University of Ibadan, the country’s premier medical school. He later completed a residency at Berkshire Medical Center in Western Massachusetts and began working as an internal medicine specialist at Duke University and its HIV Clinic. Taiwo’s HIV/AIDS research since then has spanned both the U.S. and Africa.
He noted that his medical training in Nigeria was rich in didactic and clinical training, but included only limited exposure to advanced diagnostic technologies, something he was able to catch up on during his U.S. training.
“The combination of both has proven to be uniquely valuable,” he says.
Understanding the strengths and weaknesses of both systems has aided his research.
“He understands the challenges and limitations of conducting research in resource-poor settings and is resourceful at developing solutions,” Palella says.
For example, the technological gap between the U.S. and Nigeria “extends into the research arena and has become more acute given accelerated advances occurring in the U.S.,” notes Taiwo. “This gap continually impacts my research and training associations with Nigeria, as the accessible research methodologies are different between these worlds.”
These gaps also create opportunities for major advances, since many technologies have yet to be applied in Nigerian studies.
“The limited application of advanced methodologies to research in places like Nigeria to date means tremendous opportunities exist for game-changing discoveries and innovation that will improve the lives of millions of people,” he says.
Taiwo also sees opportunities for bilateral exchanges between investigators and clinicians in different settings. He has worked to help train clinicians and investigators in Nigeria and to promote opportunities for shared knowledge. For example, inexpensive diagnostic tests developed in Nigeria might also be useful and cost-effective in the U.S.
“That cross-fertilization is important, and I really try to take advantage of it,” he says.
Palella says he expects Taiwo to push the Division of Infectious Diseases to collaborate more and to take on difficult projects.
“I think we will be even more outward-looking now,” Palella says. “That’s good for us as a division and for the providers, patients and nations we collaborate with.”
Taiwo adds, “Through working with others, we can always find ways to do more for each other, our institutions and humanity.”