Sten Vermund, MD, PhD served as HPTN principal investigator from 2006-2012. He now serves as chair of the HPTN Scientific Review Committee and a member of the Executive Committee. Dr. Vermund is dean and Anna M.R. Lauder Professor of Epidemiology (microbial diseases) at the Yale School of Public Health and professor of pediatrics at the Yale School of Medicine in New Haven, CT. He served as chief of the Epidemiology Branch, and later the Vaccine Trials and Epidemiology Branch in the Division of AIDS at NIAID/NIH from 1988-1994. He founded the Centre for Infectious Disease Research in Zambia (CIDRZ), now a major research venue for multiple NIH AIDS networks and a PEPFAR implementer.
1. How did you first become involved with the HPTN?
When I was at the Division of AIDS/NIAID (1988-1994), I co-wrote the RFA that resulted in the domestic and international HIVNET grants. Coming into academia, I was recused from working with HIVNET for several years to avoid conflict of interest. But when Ward Cates and Steve Self started to mobilize for a response to the new HPTN RFA, as a partial successor to HIVNET, they invited me to an organizational meeting in a scenic Chicago O’Hare airport conference room (no windows at all) and I was most pleased to accept this invitation!
2. What have been the best/worst things to happen since you starting working with the HPTN?
When Quarraisha and I took over as PI (Principal Investigator) and Co-PI from Ward Cates and Tom Coates, the NIH informed us that IMPAACT would get 25% of the old HPTN money, that MTN would get 50% and we (HPTN) would take 25%. So I asked them which ONE study they would want us to continue between HPTN 052 and HPTN 058 and all the others! They came up with more resources, happily, but it was a shock to think about terminating major trials that were in progress to cope with a radical reduction in funds. The best thing was the collegiality from friends, in the U.S. and abroad, all of whom wanted to strive to get answers to critical HIV prevention questions that were possible through the HPTN studies like 052.
3. What do you find most challenging about the work you do in support of the HPTN?
It is impossible to be an expert at everything, but I have to learn the science of each protocol and concept to give it a fair and expert review in the Scientific Review Committee and on the Executive Committee. So that’s challenging, but at the same time gratifying to learn more each day!
4. What do you think will change about HIV prevention over the next five years?
My guess is that the microbicide rings will be successful in preventing HIV, so we’ll have the challenge of incorporating that kind of PrEP access into our trials. Similarly, oral PrEP may become more acceptable, generating the same public health programmatic and research challenges. Additionally, with stronger evidence from HPTN 071/PopART, we may have further policy support for universal test and treat, with commensurate policy pressures on governments and funders. Finally, I hope that we will see the impact of circumcision at a population level, particularly in high uptake regions like Western Kenya.
5. What has surprised you most about working with the HPTN?
The support that HPTN received from the NIH for the HPTN Scholars Program, and more recently the HPTN International Scholars Program, was most inspiring. I give credit to Ken Meyer, Darrell Wheeler, Erica Hamilton, Sam Griffith, Quarraisha Abdool Karim, David Serwadda, Wafaa and Mike, our mentors, our Scholars, and our DAIDS advocates and NIMH/NIDA. More investigators should resemble the persons whom they are studying, don’t you think?
Just for fun...
6. What might someone be surprised to know about you?
My parents were immigrants from Norway who moved back to Norway after 30 years in the U.S. My sister was 19 and in college and I was 22 and in medical school, so we stayed in America!
7. Who is your role model, and why?
Along with many, many others, I look up to Ward Cates. Courageous in his leadership at the CDC for women’s reproductive health and rights, visionary in his global work at FHI/FHI 360, and relentlessly upbeat and optimistic, Ward is the kind of person who makes me want to do better myself, each and every day.
8. What do you like to do when not working?
My leisure exercise activities are tennis and golf, always walking, never with a golf cart. Boring, perhaps, but how I spend at least 6-8 hours a week. My wife and I love music and go to the Nashville Symphony, Jazz, or country music events nearly every week.