Interview with Irene Kiwelu

Ireen Kiwelu (right)Ireen Kiwelu is a Fogarty Fellow conducting research in the Essex Lab at the Harvard School of Public Health. Born in Moshi, Tanzania, at the base of Mt. Kilimanjaro, she was educated in Tanzania, Denmark, England and Norway. She returned to her hometown to work as a Senior Research Scientist at the Kilimanjaro Christian Medical Center.

Spotlight: What is your current research project?

Kiwelu: I’m working on the Moshi Women’s Health Project, a prospective cohort study that characterizes HIV-1 in Tanzanian women. Working from December 2004 through March 2007, we enrolled 800 female bar and hotel workers in Moshi. Women were followed for 12 months. Interviews were conducted at quarterly visits to collect information about sexual behavior and risk factors for HIV infection. In addition, blood and genital tract samples were collected for genetic analyses.

Spotlight: Why did you follow bar and hotel workers in particular?

Kiwelu: These women are at high risk of HIV infection. Though prostitution is illegal in Tanzania, many bar and hotel workers engage in part-time commercial sex work to supplement their incomes. We conducted a pilot study in 2000 that showed that bar and hotel workers have a much higher HIV prevalence than the general population. In our cohort, we found that 17% of the women were HIV-positive, compared to about 7% of women overall in Tanzania in 2007.

Spotlight: What were the objectives of the study?

Kiwelu: The objectives were to determine HIV and sexually transmitted disease prevalence, as well as the incidence or occurrence of new HIV infections in the women. We wanted to know what subtypes of HIV we have in Moshi. We are also looking at the variation of the virus in individuals over time, including how much the virus changes in a 12-month period.

Spotlight: What kind of work are you doing in the Essex Lab in Boston?

Kiwelu: I came here because of the facilities and training, which are not available in my country. Working with samples from the Moshi Women’s Health Project, I’ve learned how to use advanced techniques in HIV/AIDS research, including DNA extraction, PCR [polymerase chain reaction], gene cloning and DNA sequencing. I’m currently using a new technique called single-genome sequencing. I’m in the lab from morning through evening, from Monday through Sunday. It’s interesting because with single-genome sequencing you’re able to see the variation of viral diversity within a single person, as well as between people.

Spotlight: Why is this work important?

Kiwelu: The findings from our research will contribute to HIV/AIDS interventions, mainly the future design and development of therapeutic strategies and HIV vaccines suitable for people in Tanzania. HIV variation and subtypes have been shown to be important factors in transmission, diagnosis, treatment and disease progression.

Spotlight: What happens next?

Kiwelu: We hope to begin publishing results from the study this summer. On completion of my Fogarty Fellowship, I hope to return to Tanzania to use my knowledge and skills towards strengthening training and research on HIV/AIDS, a disease that threatens many lives in my country. It is my dream to establish a molecular biology laboratory within the Research Laboratory in Moshi, in which we would be able to conduct techniques such as PCR, DNA sequencing and screening for HIV drug resistance. This would build scientific capacity in my country and also help to minimize the cost and time of traveling to other countries in order to analyze samples.