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Winter 1999

The Scientist and the Cure
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In her absence, Giorgi's close-knit staff carried on. Giorgi likes to joke that things ran even better because she wasn't around to interfere. Her colleagues put a different spin on it. "One of Janis's incredible achievements is based on her interpersonal skills and team-building capacity," says Anton. "She has always had that as a strength and has built an incredibly stable team. The persistence and productivity of the team during the time she was out are a testament to that."

Giorgi doesn't like to dwell on her illness; she is trying to stay positive. "I have to believe the tumor is gone," she says. But there is no denying that cancer has changed her in profound ways: She tires easily and sleeps more so she can function better when she's awake. Her health remains uncertain. "Of course, they want me to be cured and for everything to be perfect," she says of her doctors, a rare edge of frustration to her soft voice. "If it's not, I worry they will be disappointed with me."

At the same time, she has also stopped putting her personal life on hold. "When you have cancer, you try to experience every bit of life that you possibly can and you recognize..." She sighs and looks down. "You recognize that people can be so incredibly generous. It allows you to see them at their best."

Meanwhile, she is forging ahead with the vaccine trial. Giorgi knows full well that approaches that work in primates often fail in humans, but she is convinced that this unexplored route of immunization -- one that goes directly to the site for HIV infection to induce immunity -- holds promise. Indeed, many AIDS researchers are beginning to consider this approach. Says Anton: "We all remember the polio vaccine as a kid, how the gut was used as a route of immunization. There's lots of research being done now in putting immunizing sequences into food or pills, to put into the gut because it's the body's largest immune organ. It also happens to be one of the major sites for HIV infection."

These days, more than anything, one senses that Janis Giorgi feels hopeful and embraces a deep reverence for life's possibilities. There is so much left for her to do and see. "I think what's learned from AIDS vaccines will be translated to other diseases as well," says the scientist. "Along with the severity of the epidemic, that's what justifies the predominance of effort given to an AIDS vaccine, the belief if we more fully understand the immune responses to this pathogen, we can apply it to other pathogens.

"All of us," she says, "are so committed to achieving a vaccine that works."


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