A Biochemist’s Fight Against AIDS
University of Illinois alumna works to combat this deadly disease in honor of her brother.
Deborah Paul was three years older than her brother, Tim, but in many ways she looked up to him. For starters he stood at 6’3”, but he also connected with people in a way that his sister, the introverted one, admired.
Tim worked as a computer programmer but he was an artist at heart. He played piano in clubs and stage productions and made reams of friends. When Deborah (MS ’79, biology) went to her 10th high school reunion, she brought along her brother because he knew as many people there as she did.
The swollen lymph node that sent Tim to the hospital one day puzzled doctors. It passed, but two years later, in 1984, they realized it was only the beginning of a new epidemic. Tim was among the first wave of gay men to be diagnosed with HIV.
The fight against HIV and its fatal end product, AIDS, an immune system disease, was then in its infancy. Deborah was a doctoral student at the Medical College of Virginia. Looking for hope, she would follow doctors as they visited AIDS patients and assessed different treatments. Nothing was working.
Months slipped by and Tim’s illness worsened. Deborah finished school and was hired as a biochemist at Abbott Laboratories, a leader in HIV research. Her background was in Hepatitis B, but she arrived at Abbott in early 1985 with a desire to join the fight against her brother’s disease. Her previous work on Hepatitis B—a bug similar to HIV—made her ideal for the job.
Just two months after she started, however, Tim ran out of time. Worn down by bouts of opportunistic diseases moving in on his weakened immune system, he died in March 1985. He was 28.
More than 7,000 people in the United States died of AIDS in 1985, according to government estimates, including the film star Rock Hudson. In retrospect, however, one could argue that one of the most momentous victims was Tim because of who he left behind.
Some two decades later Deborah, 54, still works at Abbott. She’s in management now, well-liked and experienced, and occupying a window office where every couple of minutes are marked by the sight of a jet thundering in or out of nearby O’Hare International Airport. Her laboratory days are past, but signs of what she did there are not.
One of them hangs on her wall. It’s a U.S. patent she earned during her long fight against HIV.
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Conventional thinking in 1985 was that HIV itself couldn’t be detected, at least not practically. Instead, doctors diagnosed HIV with an antibody test based on the immune system’s response, which wouldn’t register until months after the initial infection.
But Deborah wondered if they were missing a chance to spot HIV earlier, in the blood, before it reached its destination. She knew that an antigen test could spot Hepatitis B in the bloodstream, and she wondered if a similar test would work for HIV.
The implications were potentially life-saving. Such a test could more effectively screen HIV-positive donated blood, and it would allow doctors to monitor the virus and measure the effect of antiviral drugs. It could also say more definitively whether at-risk newborns had HIV, as antibody tests were inconclusive since infants received antibodies from their mothers.
Deborah’s task was enormous. She worked against not only prevailing assumptions but also an elusive bug. While Hepatitis B produces excess bundles of protein, making it easier to spot, HIV’s attack is leaner, with no excess at all as it takes over white blood cells and infects them with its own DNA.
The work required countless, solitary hours of testing, retesting, and doubting in a lab along the Chicago waterfront. They asked if Deborah minded working alone in the basement. No, she said. After Tim’s death, she needed to be alone.
Her former boss, Richard Decker (MS ’58, biochemistry)—who headed the team that developed the Hepatitis B antigen test in the early 1970s—recalls getting an unexpected call from Deborah while he was in Geneva, Switzerland. Using a combination of human, rabbit, and goat antibodies, she had done it. She spotted HIV in the blood.
Deborah had trouble convincing people. One journal reviewer wrote back, simply, “I don’t believe it.” Her testing withstood scrutiny, however, and before long the Food and Drug Administration sought her test for screening donated blood. Her antigen test was patented in 1988.
HIV diagnostics has since moved on, with screeners relying on more sensitive nucleic acid tests, but Deborah’s test was used for years. Decker still refers to her as a pioneer because she proved you could find HIV in the blood.
“She had a conviction,” he says. “And she wanted to do something that was relevant and important to the cause.”
Her fight didn’t end there. She was part of a partnership between Abbott’s diagnostics and pharmaceuticals divisions to test drugs against live specimens of HIV. Drugmakers would send over different drug combinations, and Deborah and colleagues would test them against the virus. They went through hundreds of samples until finally something worked.
The end result, a drug called Norvir, worked as a protease inhibitor that, when teamed up with older analog drugs, kept HIV off balance, giving it too many obstacles and prolonging an HIV victim’s life for years, possibly decades.
Deborah’s eyes still light up when she recalls her successes in the laboratory. While she’d like to say that it helped her cope with Tim’s death, however, she knows better. That pain is separate. It fades with time, Deborah says, but it never goes away. And so even while reflecting on her success, part of her says this: She was too late.
Today Deborah still fights HIV, albeit not quite so directly. She’s taught college courses, and this aerobics instructor of 25 years has done aerobics marathons to raise money for HIV/AIDS research. She recently created an endowment at U of I, named after herself and her brother, which will fund research in infectious disease and immunology.
“This just seemed the perfect opportunity to leave something that hopefully will have an enduring impact and also honor Tim’s memory,” she says.
Before he died, Tim realized what Deborah was trying to do. Shortly before she started her work on HIV, as a gift for earning her doctoral degree, he gave her a sapphire and diamond heart necklace and a subscription to one of her favorite magazines, Nature. She still has his note.
It turns out Tim was proud of his big sister, too.
By Dave Evensen