David Haas’ face lights up as he talks about his two children. His son Daniel works for video game company in California and the recent world championship of their game received 32 million online views. His singer songwriter daughter Anna is now recording her second album and in 2012 topped Deli Magazine’s readers’ poll as Nashville’s top emerging artist.
“Far more people tuned in for the League of Legends world championship than watched the World Series,” Haas says proudly of his son. “And my daughter Anna is so incredibly talented. Her songs are deeply heartfelt.”
His own career is equally impressive. Haas, MD, is an infectious diseases specialist and principal investigator of the AIDS Clinical Trials Group (ACTG) Network’s Vanderbilt Clinical Trials Unit in Nashville. He admits he originally turned down the idea to focus on HIV research, but the opportunity presented itself again in 1994.
“In the 1990’s the investigator who ran Vanderbilt’s HIV trials left to become a medical missionary, leaving this large clinical research program just sitting there,” Haas recalls. “The division chief asked if I wanted the position and I said no. But many months later I was asked again and I accepted. I realized this was an amazing opportunity. There is no greater infectious disease challenge in history than HIV. It was extremely fulfilling to jump in and become 100 percent focused on HIV.”
Vanderbilt joined the ACTG in 2000, which makes it a relatively young domestic site, Haas says.
“We were so appreciative to join the Network because we knew of the ACTG’s reputation,” he says. “I really admire the Network’s collaborative spirit. Anyone with a good idea that potentially addresses an important HIV question can bring their proposal to the group. Even a first year infectious diseases fellow’s idea could eventually develop into a multi-center clinical trial. Every idea passes a stringent peer review first. And this process forces the bar to continually be raised.”
An idea that did receive the Network’s approval was New Work Concept Sheet (NWCS) 214. NWCS 214 looked at the pharmacogenetics of efavirenz, a type of anti-HIV medication. Haas and other investigators learned that the body processes this drug differently depending on the person’s genes. This explains why levels of efavirenz tend to be higher in people of African descent. This showed the important role genetics play in determining whether or not a person living with HIV will develop side effects to treatment with efavirenz.
Another project focused on genetic research is A5128. Haas chairs this observational genetic consenting protocol, which has been the basis for creating a DNA repository for future studies.
“We asked participants’ permission to store their DNA for future genetic research,” Haas says. “More than 14,000 clinical trial participants consented and more than 25 studies both inside and outside of the ACTG (including NWCS 214) have been possible only because of this repository. The importance of A5128 and genetic research continues to grow.”
Constance Benson, MD, is the principal investigator of the ACTG’s University of California San Diego Antiviral Research Center. She shares Haas’ vision for the future of genetic research.
“In our effort to create a new vision for future ACTG research endeavors related to Pharmacology, we asked David to take on the task of establishing and coordinating our research portfolio related to pharmacogenetics and pharmacogenomics, two interrelated and burgeoning areas of investigation that would soon emerge as key to understanding how antiretroviral drugs are handled by the diverse patient populations we treat,” says Benson. “David almost single handedly moved the ACTG into these important investigative areas, including taking the initiative to develop and define the infrastructure and legal and ethical framework for what is now one of the most important DNA repositories in the world.”
Haas attributes discussing genetic sampling and research with the ACTG’s Global Community Advisory Board (GCAB) and the ethics committees at two of the Network’s international sites as one of his most enjoyable moments with the ACTG. The Network’s GCAB includes community representatives from each of the ACTG’s 60 sites around the world. These are people who are infected or affected by HIV. GCAB members provide site staff and investigators with the community’s input about the ACTG’s scientific agenda.
“I was invited to speak to the GCAB about human genetic research twice and it was really energizing because they have amazing enthusiasm,” Haas says. “I have also traveled to discuss the ACTG’s genetics research with Ethics Committees at the ACTG’s Clinical Trial Unit at Les Centres GHESKIO in Port au Prince, Haiti, and at the Wits HIV Research Group Clinical Trials Unit in Johannesburg, South Africa. Even though I was speaking in two different countries, the strong support of each Ethics Committee for ACTG genetic research was identical. These two trips were highlights of my research career. They were really special moments for me. Establishing that trust was critical, and in both cases, the dialogue was transformative.”