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Charles Wira, Ph.D.: Viral warrior
out of the old style and think of something new and fascinating to go for. And that's when Chuck came up with a very bright idea. He gives me credit for having stimulated him to do that, which I am very proud of. But," Munck emphasizes, "it was his idea."
Wira remembers the meeting well, and he says that Munck's comments helped change his perspective. "For all the years that I've been looking at this interface of endocrinology and immunology, I'd always been seeing it from the standpoint of the beneficial effects . . . in terms of enhancing protection," he says. After that meeting, Wira began to take a different tack. "If I was a virus," he asked himself, "what would be the most opportune time for infection to succeed?"
Over the next few months, Wira reexamined years of research and elicited input from other members of his lab. John Fahey, Ph.D., a researcher in Wira's lab and a coauthor on the 2008 AIDS paper, says that the major obstacle to understanding HIV infection was that they had previously focused on how the individual parts of the immune system provided protection in the female reproductive tract. But they now began to consider more closely how the immune system might be failing women.
Eventually, the researchers identified the "window of vulnerability," where the immune system is temporarily suppressed. The explanation for this phenomenon, in evolutionary terms, is that it prevents the immune system from attacking sperm or a fertilized egg. But the cost of facilitating reproduction is an increased likelihood of infection in the week or so following ovulation.
Grew up: Edison, N.J.
Education: Delaware Valley College '62 (B.S. in animal husbandry), Michigan State University '66 (M.S. in physiology), Dartmouth Medical School '70 (Ph.D. in physiology)
Hobbies: Horseback riding and playing polo
Number of countries represented by the staff in his lab: Five (China, India, Kenya, Zimbabwe, and the United States)
Alumni service: President, DMS Alumni Council, 2002-2004
Number of children: Three (Charles, DMS '00; William; and Christopher)
Major upcoming project: Serving as cohost of the 2013 World Congress of Reproductive Immunology
Wira traces what he calls his "watershed moment" to a regular weekly lab meeting early in 2008.
A second observation made by Wira and Fahey paints an even darker picture. HIV often gets a foothold by infecting immune cells that express certain molecules on their surface. These molecules act as receptors for HIV, allowing the virus to enter a cell, embed itself in the host's DNA, and produce copies of itself that will eventually spread to other parts of the body. During a woman's window of vulnerability, the fluctuation in sex hormones seems to draw these immune cells to the reproductive tract, giving HIV more opportunities for infection.
Wira hopes that a better understanding of how HIV spreads will lead to progress in efforts to stop the disease. "I'm very excited about this AIDS paper, because
it's an opportunity to really pull things together and to see things in a completely different perspective," he says. "I don't know what the consequences of it are going to be, but I find it very exciting to think about ways in which this information can be brought to bear to affect people's lives."
Wira is quick to credit his colleagues for making the findings possible, and he says he has benefited from the collaborative environment at DMS. But, as Fahey points out, Wira has himself played a role in fostering that kind of environment. When Fahey joined Wira's lab about 12 years ago, Wira encouraged him to pursue his own research interests, and, says Fahey, Wira does the same for his graduate students. "What I've always liked about Chuck [is] he always listens," Fahey says. "I think he always has looked out for the people in his lab."
Over the past few years, as Wira has taken on more administrative duties and increased his involvement in international AIDS-prevention activities, he has had less opportunity to work at the lab bench—something he regrets. At the same time, he's excited about the turns his career has taken. He recently got back from his third trip to Africa, where he has taught one-day courses on the immunology of HIV and helped develop international collaborations.
But even if Wira no longer spends as much time as he'd like peering through a microscope, his lab continues to produce important findings—and to impress his mentor. "His work keeps blossoming," says Allan Munck. "It really is quite remarkable."
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Amos Esty is senior writer for Dartmouth Medicine magazine.
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