Tiffani Billups, a senior in high school at Carver Engineering and Science School in Southwest Philadelphia, recently made significant strides in the field of HIV research alongside 11 other high school students. Their experiments, conducted at Philadelphia’s Wistar Institute, tested a potential new treatment for HIV with findings so promising that they were included in a recently published study from the research center.
According the Philadelphia Inquirer, the students were part of Wistar programs aimed at promoting diversity in the biomedical sciences, and their success underscores the importance of providing scientific opportunities to individuals from all backgrounds.
“Anyone can be a scientist,” said Wistar faculty member Ian Tietjen, the lead author of the study. “It doesn’t matter who you are. Right away, you can contribute to an HIV study.”
The students focused their experiments on a plant-derived anti-inflammatory compound called hopeaphenol, which was initially discovered in red wines two decades ago. Although its potential benefits have been primarily observed in laboratory settings, Tietjen and his colleague Luis Montaner believe hopeaphenol could play a crucial role in combating HIV.
The researchers found that hopeaphenol could complement existing antiviral drugs by targeting the virus at an earlier stage of infection. While current drugs suppress the virus when it becomes active, hopeaphenol appears to prevent its activation altogether. This novel approach could address the chronic inflammation caused by even low levels of the virus, which can lead to various health issues.
In addition to evaluating hopeaphenol's effects on HIV, the students were tasked with assessing its impact on other immune cells responsible for fighting off infections. They found that the compound interfered with one type of immune signal but had minimal effect on another, suggesting a positive outcome.
Wistar scientist Jason Diaz, who oversees the high school program, stressed the importance of treating the students as equals and providing ample guidance throughout the experiments. Despite the relatively short three-week duration of the program, the students made significant contributions due to their dedication and mentorship. Diaz hopes to foster longer-term relationships with students and expand the program's reach to more schools in the future.
While the research conducted by the students is a significant step forward, further studies are necessary before hopeaphenol can be used as an HIV treatment. However, their achievements highlight the potential of young participants in Wistar's programs to shape the future of scientific research and inspire others to pursue careers in biomedical sciences.