‘The most basic question that we need to answer to cure HIV is, ‘How do you kill cells infected with HIV?’ And we do not know.’
Satish Pillai almost missed his calling in HIV science, and still feels drawn to a second, deep love—music, with a third passion, math, just behind. At 44, he’s a self-professed geek, born in Boston, retaining fond memories of having been a young hippie kid in high school who followed the Grateful Dead around before moving on to hardcore punk and later, fusion blues. It may seem an odd route to HIV cure research, but for Pillai, music’s the ticket: “It’s a controlled experiment,” he explains, only half joking. “When I’m playing a lot of music I think a lot more clearly; I’m more energized and directed scientifically.”
He also loves collaborating and riffing ideas with others, something he does playing jazz, and now, as part of a big stakeholder group planning the SCOPE remission trial. Lately, he’s been delving into the cancer world, borrowing ideas from oncologists battling tumors. “I would say the genetic analysis of cancer can be directly applied to HIV,” he says. “When I think of the HIV cure field, I think the cancer immunotherapy world is really being swallowed into the HIV cure field.”
Pillai credits his Indian-American family for his path to the lab. “Both of my parents were kind of nerds,” he says right off the bat. “My mother is a math geek and my dad is a clinical biochemist.” Pillai worked in his father’s lab in the summer. “That’s where I cut my teeth in terms of being in a lab,” he explains. He has one sibling, and is married, with two children.
While the cure field has advanced in recent years, Pillai feels we’re still standing in a new doorway. His job in the SCOPE trial is to test new strategies to map and target the reservoir. “One thing we hope to achieve is to get more information on the pockets of where HIV actually resides,” he explains. That’s where things remain challenging. “We don’t understand clearance in the reservoirs—it’s that simple,” Pillai states, mincing no words. “I’ve heard people say things to the contrary that I find concerning, but to me we are still in the trenches. It’s very early days, and we are not in the technological or scaling up era.”
Right now, he’s eyeing the first rungs of the ladder to advance our knowledge. “The most basic question that we need to answer to cure HIV is, ‘How do you kill cells infected with HIV?’ And we do not know,” says Pillai, adding quickly, “I mean, we are starting to get more and more clues about how cells that are infected die and how we push them in that direction, and they can die a little quicker, but we barely know anything about the process.”
Despite the gaps, he’s confident we’re on the right path—jazzed might be a better word for a fusion blues guy. “I’m actually very optimistic that we will see some evidence of spontaneous control after the rebound period,” he says of the coming SCOPE trial. “I’m really crossing my fingers.” —AC