HIV Researcher Searches for Cure & Gems
Jeffrey Lennox, MD, spends his days searching for answers. As the Principal Investigator of the AIDS Clinical Trials Group (ACTG) Network’s Emory HIV/AIDS Clinical Trials Unit in Atlanta, he researches safer, more effective treatment options for people living with HIV. As an avid treasure hunter, Lennox mines for amethyst, rubies and other gems to give as presents to family and friends. His job and his hobby require similar characteristics – patience and perseverance.
Initially, Lennox rejected a career in research. But what he saw in the infectious diseases clinic changed his mind.
“I worked for three years as a full-time infectious diseases clinician when the anti-HIV medications DDI and AZT were the only treatments,” he says. “Not everyone responded well to these drugs and many had horrible side effects. I realized I was not helping my patients by making it easier for them to die. I decided to make clinical research for better drugs my focus.”
A244 was Lennox’s first study with the ACTG in 1992. It proved that measuring a person’s resistance to a drug through a blood test and guiding treatment based on the results was more effective than waiting until the person stopped responding.
“This was before resistance testing was widely available,” Lennox says. “In the late 1980s and early 1990s, people didn’t think about antiretroviral resistance testing. But now it is widely accepted.”
Lennox points to pivotal trials like ACTG’s A5142 study as studies that changed the treatment paradigm. This trial compared alternatives for first line therapy and established that a simple anti-HIV drug combination that included once daily efavirenz worked best, especially for people who had never been on treatment.
“From 1996-2005 many ACTG treatment trials were studying people living with HIV who were treatment experienced,” Lennox says. “With A5142, we gave treatment naïve patients highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART). Month after month, they were able to suppress their viral loads and we realized that full viral suppression was our new goal. When I got into this work, I never thought we would be seeing people living 30 years and longer with HIV.”
In addition to groundbreaking research results, Lennox finds serving as a mentor to young investigators rewarding. He is especially proud of the opportunities the ACTG affords international researchers.
“The ACTG expanded internationally because we knew we had to conduct research where the epidemic was expanding,” Lennox says. “But we didn’t want to just be tourist researchers and conduct a study and then leave. We wanted to establish sites and train local researchers to do the work.”
Lennox mentors Nigerian immigrant Ighovwerha Ofotokun, MD, MSc, at the Emory ACTG site. Ofotokun is a former participant in the ACTG Minority HIV Investigator Mentoring Program (MHIMP). The MHIMP allows a site within the ACTG Network to offer a mentorship to a junior minority investigator with an interest in studying virology, immunology, pharmacology or another aspect of HIV/AIDS research.
“Dr. Lennox is a dedicated clinician scientist with a drive to make a difference in the lives of his patients,” says Ofotokun. “He possesses a clear understanding and a deep insight on the issues in the field of HIV clinical research. Dr. Lennox is detail-oriented and has a common sense approach to science, always seeking practical ways to translate scientific findings into patient care. As a mentor, he set clear and attainable goals for his mentees and he led by example. Due to the effectiveness of his leadership style, the A5257 study was fully developed and ready for recruitment within 12 months of approval and was fully implemented in record time.”
Lennox is Co-Chair and Ofotokun is Co-Vice Chair of A5257, a study comparing three anti-HIV medication combinations in 1,800 people living with HIV who have never been on treatment.
“I’m trying to put a plan in place for when I keel over so that our research is carried forward,” Lennox says. “Watching a mentee become successful and begin collaborating on study teams is the best part of being in the ACTG. Without the ACTG, it would have been much harder for me or other young investigators to succeed.”
Lennox admires the Network’s leadership. He says holding executive positions within the ACTG is an enormous personal and professional commitment.
“It is really admirable of them because this is a seven year sacrifice,” Lennox says. “They are donating huge amounts of their time to the ACTG and their entire focus is on the Network and the patients we serve. The ACTG really is a like a family. It’s a group of people you grow to love and can bounce ideas off of. It is a community of people working together to conduct meaningful research.”
Thinking toward the future scientific agenda, Lennox hopes the Network focuses resources on aging, co-infections and cure research.
“Our patients now understand that a cure is possible and we have to deliver it.” He says. “In Atlanta, young black men who have sex with men account for the most new infections. They don’t want to be on a triple-drug anti-HIV therapy until they are 85. We really want to cure them.”
Lennox will also continue his hobby searching for the best gems. His description of how it can feel tedious to dig all day under the hot, Southern sun for one precious stone can be applied to the diligence needed to find a cure for HIV.
“Sometimes you need to dig for a long time, but when you find one, it’s like winning the lottery,” he says.