Our people

One researcher’s lifelong fight for HIV prevention

Mike Robertson, M.D., has spent his career fighting for HIV prevention; now, he’s optimistic about a bright future

November 18, 2020

Share this article

HIV molecule

Dr. Michael Robertson, executive director, Merck Research Laboratories, was merely days into his medical residency when he first encountered HIV/AIDS. It was 1983 at the University of Washington Medical Center in Seattle, and the world knew very little about this “mysterious” virus. Two years later, 20% of admissions to the hospital were patients with AIDS – including some of his coworkers.

article quote image

“I saw these cases exploding around me and thought, ‘this is a real public health crisis.’ I knew this [HIV/AIDS] was a field I had to work in.”

Dr. Michael Robertson

Since then, HIV research – and the pursuit of prevention – has driven his career.

40 years fighting HIV

Understanding and treating HIV and AIDS was a top priority for researchers and doctors alike, and one of the first breakthroughs came when scientists isolated the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) that causes AIDS.

“At the time we thought, ‘great, we’ll get everything under control in a few years,’” Mike remembered. “But clearly it was much more complicated than that.”

Two decades later, Mike had the opportunity to co-lead a study of a promising vaccine option – only for it to fall short.

“While the vaccine failed, and it was devastating to the entire HIV community, our team at Merck was able to identify key learnings – learnings that are still being applied to HIV prevention research today,” Mike said. “Even though it failed, we were actually really proud of our work. Understanding why it didn’t work meant the global community had to rethink and focus on other ways to prevent HIV infection.”

A major form of HIV prevention medicine is pre-exposure prophylaxis, known as PrEP, which, when taken consistently, can help prevent a person without HIV from getting the virus through sex or injection drug use. And according to the Global PrEP Tracker, it is estimated that more than 770,000 people have initiated PrEP use globally. But there’s still more work to be done to ensure people don’t get left behind.

“These type of HIV preventative measures can work. We just have to explore different approaches,” he said. “That’s what our team of researchers is focused on now: innovating for the people that need it most.”

Addressing the unmet needs in HIV

Women and girls have been left out of many conversations and options for HIV prevention, leading to alarming numbers of infection rates in many regions, particularly in sub-Saharan Africa.

“Young women have the highest rates of infection and the least effective options,” Mike says.

There are a lot of factors at play. Continuing stigma, economic challenges, and other quality of life issues can deter women from gaining access to or adhering to the right prevention regimen.

“In many societies and cultures, the decision to use condoms is unfortunately up to men,” Mike said. “We are working hard so that women in these situations can have more control over HIV prevention and their bodies, starting with options that can better suit their needs.”

Where collaboration meets HIV prevention

Making a widespread impact in the lives of sub-Saharan African women and beyond is not an easy lift. We need to collaborate across organizations.

“The HIV community is a model of what can happen when we work together towards the same thing,” Mike said. “I believe the global community has the tools and the teamwork to help end HIV in our lifetimes.”