Play Live Radio
Next Up:
0:00 0:00
Available On Air Stations

Pitt AIDS study hits milestone birthday, turns to questions of aging with HIV

A group of men and woman sit around a table in an office.
Pitt Men's Study
A community advisory board meeting for the Pitt Men's Study.

This month marks 40 years since the Pitt Men's Study started enrolling volunteers in what has become one of the longest-running U.S. studies of HIV and AIDS.

AIDS is the most severe stage of HIV, which interferes with the immune system’s ability to fight infection and disease. The first cases of AIDS in the U.S. were reported in 1981. The National Institutes of Health says that since then more than 700,000 thousand people have died in the U.S. from AIDS-related causes – including some 27,000 Pennsylvanians. Globally, more than 40 million people have died from the virus.

The Pitt Men’s Study focuses on gay men since this population is at higher risk of contracting HIV. Even though participants’ identities were kept confidential, scientists had to build trust within Pittsburgh’s gay community to find potential research volunteers. One of the more important resources were gay and lesbian bar owners.

“They were extremely helpful and extremely supportive of us going into their bars and recruiting men, in the evening, in the back room where we'd take blood from them and have them sign our consent forms,” said infectious diseases researcher Charles Rinaldo of the University of Pittsburgh School of Medicine. Rinaldo established the study and is its principal investigator.

The study has played a significant role in shaping science’s understanding of the HIV virus and estimates that it’s been involved with the publication of more than 500 papers. Among the most important findings is that people with higher viral loads at the beginning of their infection tend to develop AIDS sooner.

But perhaps a bigger legacy of the Pitt Men’s Study is how the work has supported HIV/AIDS research at institutions well beyond Pittsburgh: After four decades of collecting samples and surveying study participants, the researchers have amassed a huge repository of data.

“They support investigations that they had never imagined,” said David Ribes, a sociologist of science at University of Washington. “That’s invaluable. There’s nothing to compare.”

Another thing that Ribes finds remarkable is that the Pitt researchers are now trying to answer questions about HIV and aging. But for the first 12 or 13 years of the study, AIDS was a fatal illness.

“They had these men coming in once every six months, and many, many, many are dying. It’s a labor that’s quite painful, even for the clinicians,” said Ribes, who is finishing a book about early AIDS research that includes an exploration of the work at Pitt.

Rinaldo also recalls the pre-antiretroviral drug era as extremely painful, “There was huge relief when those drugs came out.”

The Pitt Men’s Study currently has funding into 2026. Rinaldo says he wants the project to continue until there is a vaccine or cure for HIV.

Sarah Boden covers health and science for 90.5 WESA. Before coming to Pittsburgh in November 2017, she was a reporter for Iowa Public Radio. As a contributor to the NPR-Kaiser Health News Member Station Reporting Project on Health Care in the States, Sarah's print and audio reporting frequently appears on NPR and KFF Health News.