Three undergraduate students at the Burnett School of Biomedical Sciences have been selected to present their health disparities research at the International AIDS Conference in Montreal, Canada, July 29-Aug. 2. The conference is the largest and most prestigious HIV/AIDS research conference in the world and will feature infectious disease expert Anthony Fauci as the keynote speaker.

The students, Daniela Castro, Parth Chandan and Brandon Cohen, will share their findings on how some HIV medications cause weight gain in some patient populations, particularly in African American and Hispanic women. The finding is significant because previous metabolic studies had been done primarily on white men.

Under the supervision of Charlotte-Paige Rolle, the director of Research Operations at the Orlando Immunology Center, the students did a longitudinal cohort study at the Orlando Immunology Center looking at changes in weight and body mass index (BMI) in adults living with HIV and being treated with two antiviral drugs, bictegravir and dolutegravir (DTG).

“Some physicians have noticed that there was abnormal weight gain in patients switching to the medication called bictegravir,” says Chandan, a rising senior biomedical sciences major who is also studying psychology, diversity and social inequity.

“This weight gain was seen mostly in older women from minority groups,” Chandan says. “However, early clinical trials did not show this abnormal weight gain as they were primarily conducted among white male patients. So, we decided to expand these metabolic parameters and see how these types of therapies affect older minority women as well as minorities in general.”

During the first 40 weeks, the research team observed no significant changes in weight and BMI among patients using these two different medications. However, that changed over time.

“We did another evaluation at 96 weeks and we saw that the patients’ fasting glucose and triacylglycerol levels were higher, and so were their weight gain and BMI,” says Castro, a rising senior. She added that patients who had diabetes and other metabolic diseases, who were already at risk of cardiovascular disease, also showed a higher level of risk while taking bictegravir and dolutegravir.

“And so, we saw that these medications had adverse effects in minority populations which were not shown when previously studied in white male populations,” Castro says.

Chandan says these findings underscore the need for more diversity in clinical studies and how different populations are impacted differently by disease. He hopes the study will pave the way for future studies on how these and other medications impact diverse populations.

“It’s truly amazing to have been selected for this international conference,” says Parth, a 2022 Order of Pegasus recipient. “Our goal with this study was how to examine how these populations are being adversely affected during treatment, but we’re excited to be able to share it with the world and hope it will inspire future studies.”

Castro, who has a passion for serving marginalized communities, plans to become a physician who advocates for minority communities.

“I think I think as a physician, you should have a moral imperative to want to help all communities around you,” she says. “You have to have a passion to help other people and genuinely want to serve them. And I think research is the best way to really make an impact.”

Tracy MacIntosh, the College of Medicine’s associate dean of Diversity, Equity and Inclusion, says the study highlights the importance for all researchers to be intentional about ensuring that studies and trials include participants from all groups in our society.

“For too long, Black, Hispanic and Indigenous groups have been excluded from research studies,” she says. “Focusing on diversity and representation in research will help ensure that the findings are applicable to all members of our society, and will help control for socio-economic disparities that lead to poorer health outcomes. Furthermore, we must acknowledge and address the historical injustices committed against members of these marginalized populations that have led some members to distrust our healthcare community.”