Larry Arthur (right) recruited HIV/AIDS expert Jeff Lifson to his AIDS Vaccine Program at the Frederick National Laboratory in 1995.

FREDERICK, Md. -- As a deadly mystery disease with an unknown etiology caused worldwide panic in the early 1980s and quickly became an epidemic, Dr. Jeffrey Lifson was right in the middle of it. 

He was a recent medical school graduate and cellular immunology fellow at Stanford Medical School where he saw early cases of what would become known as AIDS.

After participating in one of the first efforts to use laboratory testing to keep AIDS-contaminated blood out of the blood supply, he shifted his research to focus on the new disorder, making contributions that led to discoveries that sped the understanding of and ultimately treatments for HIV.

Lifson, Director of the AIDS and Cancer Virus Program at the Frederick National Laboratory for Cancer Research, is today considered one of the leading HIV researchers in the world. He and his colleagues were among the first to trace some cases of AIDS transmission to transfused blood. Lifson also co-developed one of the first direct tests for HIV.

“Jeff has done wonders to move HIV immunology forward,” said Larry Arthur, Ph.D., the former president of the Frederick National Laboratory who recruited Lifson to join his AIDS Vaccine Program lab in 1995. “He’s at the forefront of the field.”

In recognition of his noteworthy discoveries and contributions to HIV research, Lifson was recently elected a fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology. He joins more than 2,400 fellows selected by their peers for scientific achievement.

Election as an AAM fellow comes with the expectation that the investigator shares his or her expertise, to inspire and ultimately further someone else’s research. 

Sharing and collaboration have been hallmarks of Lifson’s work all along. And it’s why he was drawn to the Frederick National Laboratory, where investigators do their own studies and are at the same time dedicated to the national mission of the FNL. “We proactively share our work, providing novel reagents and access to new analytical methods to investigators and labs all over the country, all over the world, to enhance overall research progress,” he said. “The Frederick National Lab is unique environment which enables us to facilitate that.”

Combining Forces and Continuing a Legacy

The AIDS Vaccine Program was a logical home for Lifson. The lab was at the center of HIV/AIDS research and a leading source of materials for HIV assay and drug development. Lifson found a mentor when lab director Arthur recruited him to Frederick from a biotech startup in California. 

Together they continued to grow the reach and reputation of their AIDS treatment and vaccine work. “Jeff is so scientifically attuned to everything,” Arthur said. “He took the program to a whole new level.”

A collaboration with investigators at the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases sparked Lifson’s interest in nonhuman primates as a model for HIV/AIDS research, and soon after arriving in Frederick he shifted much of his research focus there.

Simian immunodeficiency viruses (SIV) are HIV-like viruses that can infect monkeys and apes. SIVs can be molecularly engineered to meet the requirements of a particular study, allowing investigators greater control and ability to focus on a specific element. “These are very powerful experimental systems where you can pose important questions in ways you can’t in a clinical context for a variety of practical and ethical reasons,” Lifson said. 

Lifson became head of the AIDS and Cancer Virus Program in 2000 when Arthur was named CEO of the Frederick National Laboratory. Initially, Arthur was reluctant to let go of the program he founded.

“It’s like getting a classic car running well, taking it to shows and then all of a sudden handing it over to someone,” Arthur said. “But Jeff knew I loved it. I was leaving it in good hands.”

Sharing Expertise to Advance Progress

Brandon Keele, Ph.D., a Principal Investigator in the AIDS and Cancer Virus Program and head of one of its Research Support Cores, designs many of the specialized viruses used in the program’s nonhuman primate studies. He was recruited to Frederick in 2009 by Lifson and since coming has benefitted from Lifson’s advice, ideas and honest feedback. Lifson’s commitment to HIV/AIDS science is matched by his support for young investigators, and Keele said Lifson has been a valued mentor. 

“That’s his real contribution – his willingness to help other people,” Keele said. “Jeff recognizes the problem is bigger than any single individual and the solution is complex.” 

Known in the field for rigorous thoughtful constructive critiques, Lifson does not hesitate to speak up among his colleagues, Keele said. “Jeff’s the guy at the meetings where if he stands up and challenges something, everyone stops to listen to what he has to say.”

Yet Lifson is only too happy to share or even cede the spotlight. He’s generous with his position as author on papers and relishes being able to share new technology with other investigators to facilitate their work. He is proud to be an AAM fellow, and just as thrilled to be joined in the 2019 class by his long-time National Cancer Institute counterpart, Eric Freed, Ph.D., Director of the NCI’s HIV Dynamics and Replication Program.

Lifson’s ability to recognize good investigators and to collaborate with them has “done wonders to move HIV immunology forward,” his mentor Arthur said.

It’s been more than 30 years since Lifson first trained his scientific expertise on HIV/AIDS. That seems like a long time, Lifson said, but in the history of medical innovation it’s a blink.

Larry Arthur said he believes over the next 30 years the science will move toward the silver bullet – a vaccine to protect the world from HIV.

“I think it will happen, and my guess Jeff will be involved," Arthur said.

By Mary Ellen Hackett, staff writer

Image: Larry Arthur (right) recruited HIV/AIDS expert Jeff Lifson to his AIDS Vaccine Program at the Frederick National Laboratory in 1995. “I didn’t know what a coup it was until he got here,” Arthur said. “His first draft of a scientific article is better than my final draft.” Lifson became director of the AIDS and Cancer Virus program when Arthur was tapped to lead the FNL.​

Read more about Lifson's work in "A Race Against the Unfolding Epidemic."