Student and Two Alumnae Awarded 2018 Stanford Calderwood Prizes in Public Writing

May 1, 2018
 A combination of antiretroviral drugs keep patients with HIV live longer than ever before.

Wellesley has announced the 2018 winners of the annual Stanford Calderwood Prizes in Public Writing, which recognize exceptional pieces written by students in the Calderwood Seminar in Public Writing program. The program teaches students to translate complex arguments and professional jargon from their disciplines into writing intended for a broad audience.

This year’s Calderwood Prizes were awarded to Brianna Ruffin ’17, humanities; Grace Chow ’17, social sciences; and Alexandra Beem ’18, sciences.

Alexandra Beem ’18 looks at the long-term effects of antiretroviral therapy (ART), an HIV treatment plan that uses a combination of antiretroviral drugs to control the rate at which HIV multiplies in the body. Below is an excerpt from her award-winning Calderwood project.

Thanks to rapid advancements in antiretroviral therapy (ART), people with HIV are living longer than ever before, supported by daily drugs that can suppress the amount of virus in the blood to undetectable levels. The importance of this treatment cannot be understated -- by preventing the virus from replicating in the body, ART has transformed HIV infection from a death sentence into a manageable chronic illness for 20.9 million people across the globe.

However, emerging research indicates that antiretroviral therapy is not the silver bullet for the HIV epidemic. I sat down with Dr. Jennifer Snyder-Cappione, a professor of Microbiology and an HIV specialist at the Boston University Medical Campus, to ask why.

Snyder-Cappione explained that because highly-active antiretroviral therapy has only been available for a few decades, we are slowly learning more about the effects of long-term therapy. As people on the leading edge of the HIV epidemic reach their 60s and 70s, Snyder-Cappione says, “we’re finding that these patients, who we would expect to do fine, are having more heart attacks, strokes, dementia, and all of these diseases that we wouldn’t normally associate with HIV.”

These diseases are characteristic of old age, and Snyder-Cappione explained that from a clinical perspective it looks like HIV infection is linked to premature aging. This means that, on average, people with completely suppressed viral loads still have shorter life expectancies than their HIV peers. Studies conducted in high-income countries report a 10 to 30-year difference in lifespan, but these data depend on a number of factors. Drug regimen, timing of ART initiation (i.e.,- early or late in the infection,) patient gender, and various lifestyle factors (injection drug use, smoking, etc.) all have a say in the life expectancy of someone on ART.

In light of this new evidence, Snyder-Cappione, and her network of HIV specialists are trying to figure out how we can give patients who are suppressed on ART a normal lifespan.

For more information, read Beem’s piece on antiretroviral therapy in its entirety, and explore the work of Brianna Ruffin ’17 and Grace Chow ’17 on the Calderwood Seminars website. Beem will also be presenting her work on May 2 at the Ruhlman Conference.

Photo: Due to a combination of antiretroviral drugs (above), patients with HIV are living longer than ever before.