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AIDS Research Pioneer James Hildreth Moving On From Meharry

In 2005 when Dr. James E.K. Hildreth decided to leave the prestigious Johns Hopkins University Medical School where he was trained as a physician and later latched on to his research niche — cell activity in HIV, the virus that causes AIDS — inquiring minds followed his seemingly curious journey south to the lesser known and historically Black Meharry Medical College in Nashville, Tenn.

Six years later, Hildreth, a pre-eminent AIDS researcher and professor who maintained a foot in Nashville’s largely Black and underserved communities and another in his BioSafety Level 3 laboratory that handled live HIV, was named the new dean of the University of California, Davis College of Biological Sciences. Hildreth begins his appointment on August 1. He will oversee 124 faculty of which only 13 are Asian, two are Hispanic, and one is African-American, according to data from UC Davis.

Calling Hildreth’s appointment at UC Davis “an opportunity of a lifetime,” Dr. Charles P. Mouton, dean of the School of Medicine at Meharry, spoke of the researcher’s contributions to the college and to the community.

“Dr. Hildreth’s contributions … extend far beyond his day-today roles and responsibilities. He is valued as a true leader and mentor, dedicated to the mission of meeting the health care needs of the underserved and underrepresented.”

Mouton named Fernando Villalta, Ph.D., interim director of the Center for HIV/AIDS Health Disparities Research, which Hildreth founded.

Villalta, a professor and chairman of Meharry’s Department of Microbiology and Immunology, has worked at the college for 25 years. He has made the pursuit of eradicating Chagas disease, a potentially lethal parasitic infection that affects between 8 million and 11 million people, mostly in Latin America, his life’s work.

The Tennessean, Nashville’s largest daily newspaper, along with readers who voted, named Hildreth and his research team “Tennessean of the Year” in 2008. They cited Hildreth’s work on AIDS and health disparities: “Dr. Hildreth has not only made the lives of Tennesseans better with his research, but he’s made the lives of people around the world better. His work will very likely lead to AIDS becoming a disease we talk about in the past tense.

“Dr. Hildreth has committed himself to seeing people around the globe live full, complete lives without suffering the horrifying death AIDS causes. He deserves this award very much.”

Just months after arriving at Meharry and with moving boxes scattered, still waiting to be unpacked, Hildreth forged ahead with the priorities on his agenda. This was despite a less than outfitted series of labs, which at the time were windowless, painted battleship gray and missing most of their ceiling ligh

“Clearly, infrastructure at Meharry isn’t what it is at Hopkins,” a mild-mannered Hildreth told Diverse during a 2005 interview at the Nashville campus. Also topping Hildreth’s agenda was ramping up and gaining a breakthrough into research on how HIV enters cells and causes infection, work that he began at Hopkins. Hildreth labored to bring to market and to the lives of vulnerable women across the globe what he considers the next best thing to an AIDS vaccine — a microbicide —“gels or creams that women would use to block vaginal transmission of the virus,” he said.

A year ago, Hildreth did just that, making global headlines when he developed an odorless, undetectable contraceptive cream that destroys the AIDS virus and holds promise for stopping the transmission of the disease. The vaginal cream, Hildreth said, was designed to support women, especially those in Africa who “have no way of protecting themselves from HIV transmission, as well as Black women in the United States who are disproportionately affected by the disease.”

The National Institutes of Health recognized Meharry’s work with a $21.4 million grant to establish the Meharry Clinic and Translational Research Center, which is conducting clinical human trials focusing on cures and treatments for HIV and women’s health issues. At UC Davis, Hildreth is expected to continue his research on microbicides as well as work on how cholesterol controls the genes of HIV. In 2001, while serving as chief of the Division of Research for the National Institute of Health’s National Center on Minority Health and Health Disparities, Hildreth and his research team made an important discovery related to HIV.

The team found that cholesterol is active in HIV’s ability to penetrate cells and that removing the fatty material from a cell’s membrane can block infection. 

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