Bringing Research and Community
Together to End HIV

While the overall rates in HIV/AIDS have decreased, the risks of infections within certain populations have surged. Young men who have sex with men and transgender people— particular those between ages 13 and 34—have higher risk of HIV infections. In the United States, gay and bisexual men account for two-thirds of new HIV diagnoses, despite representing only four percent of the population.

A new preventative medication named PrEP‎ helps stave off new cases, but it must be taken daily as a pill—a challenge for some. Young African American and Latino adults often face financial issues and unstable housing, so they may not always follow a strict regiment. “PrEP is a good option for some but not adequate for others, who are vulnerable,” says Shobha Swaminathan, an associate professor of medicine at Rutgers New Jersey Medical School (NJMS). “We need better options.”

That’s why NJMS’s Clinical Research Center (CRC), is partaking in Mosaico—a Phase III clinical vaccine trial, which aims to provide HIV immunity for life via several shots. 

Located within the city of Newark, the CRC brings cutting-edge science and medical care to the local population disproportionally affected by HIV, so it’s perfectly situated to address this crucial health issue.

“We are the only New Jersey site participating in the study, and it’s great that we are able to bring this effort to Essex and Hudson counties,” says Swaminathan, who is also a clinical research site leader for the trials funded by the National Institute of Health (NIH). A joint venture of the NIH, the HIV Vaccine Trials Network and Janssen Pharmaceuticals, Mosaico aims to enroll 3,800 participants, of which Swaminathan hopes to recruit 50 to 100 from the greater Newark area.

Thanks to community liaisons Travis Love and Jamir Tuten, the CRC is deeply-engaged in the lives and activities of members in the local LGBTQ community. For three years, the CRC has been supporting a vibrant transgender fashion show, celebrating diversity in body, beauty and style. Tuten and Love attend library gatherings and meet-ups, connecting with LGBTQ circles in Newark about housing, relationships, family and health. This helps to build genuine and trusting relationships, which is important for reducing the stigma surrounding HIV and research.

“We explain that prevention isn’t centered around negative things,” says Tuten. “We talk about sex positivity.” For their work in engaging community via exciting, de-stigmatizing ways, the duo received a North Jersey Community Research Initiative (NJCRI) award in 2019—the Newark PROUD Award.

( Left: Travis Love; Right: Jamir Tuten )

( Left: Travis Love; Right: Jamir Tuten )

This long-standing, community-based relationship will help recruit Mosaico volunteers because locals in Newark who agree to participate are confident that they will be treated with respect and provided a safe place to speak freely and honestly about their health and who they are. The trial efforts will test the vaccine efficacy; but participants will also receive regular medical care and HIV testing at the CRC—benefiting them personally, and helping to advance scientific and clinical research, specifically.

By bringing research and the community together, we might finally end the HIV epidemic says Love. “We are excited about Mosaico. It’s offering another treatment perspective in the hunt for a permanent method; and it’s in Phase III—so we have big hope.”