In 1981, Marjorie Robert-Guroff was just finishing her post doctoral fellowship at the National Cancer Institute's Leukemia Society of America when a fatal infection crept into the nation.
Reports began trickling in of young men coming down with some inexplicable syndrome that showed symptoms of swollen lymph nodes and an unshakable pneumonia. Clinicians in other countries began sending in samples to the institute of this unknown disease to be analyzed, believing it to be a type of cancer. In the lab of biomedical researcher Robert Gallo, one that would become synonymous with Human Immunodeficiency (HIV) and AIDS discovery and research, the severity of this disease began to take shape. And Robert-Guroff was there from the onset.
"We had no idea that we would recognize this as a global epidemic," she recalls.
In 1993 Robert-Guroff became Chief of the Immune Biology of Retroviral Infection Section at the National Cancer Institute. The lab is searching for the possible treatment, prevention and diagnosis of retroviral-induced diseases, namely AIDS and HIV.
On her desk, photos of family and friends sit tucked in between stacks of research on HIV vaccine development she and her various teams have been working on since 1989. A self-declared pack rat, she admits to never throwing old work away so when a sample from 1982 is needed from the freezer room, she is the first to know exactly where it is. And Robert-Guroff often brings her work home with her, an essential necessity lest she fall behind on time consuming research.
HIV research is an intense, expensive and slow-going process, Robert-Guroff explains. Monkeys, rhesus macaques, are injected with an adenovirus recombinant that create a similar effect as HIV. Once their bodies react to the replicated virus, a process that can take up to 36 weeks, they are injected with a counter virus meant to elicit antibodies that should immunize the attack. However, there is a "low-dose challenge" where the animals can only be given five to fifteen doses of the replicated virus. In order to see greater effects, more animals would be needed for testing. Since such studies are very expensive, budget constraints limit the amount of animals that can be tested.
While progress has been steady with results of effectiveness in boosting immune responses with the use of adenovirus recombinants, providing the basis that will soon lead to the first phase of human trials, it has nonetheless been modest. A "monkey trial" can take up to two years to complete, so progress does not necessarily equal quick results.
"It's not moving as fast as I would like, but it is moving forward," she says.
Robert-Guroff notes the Thai Trial from 2009. The six-year long trial resulted in the first time that an HIV vaccine reached a level of success with a 31 percent efficacy in reducing HIV in the 16,000 volunteers.
The discovery of a vaccine, though daunting, is not impossible. Robert-Guroff says that the ultimate goal would be sterilizing immunity and finding a vaccine that would prevent the virus from ever infecting human cells.
She feels this is just a matter of time.
Robert-Guroff, 68, is a petite athletic woman with short-cropped hair, a large smile and doe-like eyes. Her mind works quickly as she explains her research, one thought flowing into the next in a stream of consciousness. When she does manage to break away from her work, Robert-Guroff is most likely playing tennis, a hobby that brought her to Arizona last summer for a National Champion of "super seniors," learning to golf, spending time with those friends and family from her office photos, and singing.
Ten years ago, after a longtime hiatus, she took up her passion for singing again and was pleased to find that she could still perform. Now, she sings with NIH's Chamber Singers and in Bethesda with the all female Barbershop Quartet, Sassafras. It's become an important release.
"By the time you've finished singing, you must feel great. At least, I do."