Tara Kieffer: From helix to hepatitis

© 2009 Leah Fasten

Tara Kieffer fell in love with science during a visit to her father’s biology lab at Montgomery College in Maryland. Inspired by a model of DNA’s double helix, the 5- or 6-year-old Kieffer drew a replica of the structure that has hung on her walls ever since. “DNA was beautiful and it helped spark my interest in biology,” she says.

While an undergrad at Colgate University in New York, Kieffer’s fascination with biology grew through research experiences at the National Institutes of Health and the US Food and Drug Administration. But it wasn’t until Kieffer, as a new PhD student in 1999, visited Robert Siliciano’s HIV lab at Johns Hopkins University that she narrowed her scientific focus to the area she’d make a career of—infectious diseases. Siliciano’s work in HIV therapy represented an opportunity to get involved with a rapidly...

Kieffer studied how HIV progressed in the bloodstreams of patients on highly active antiretroviral therapy, and tracked the development of resistance to HIV drugs. She found that the 2LTR circular form of HIV DNA—which is commonly counted to help determine the timing of recent HIV infection—is too intrinsically stable, meaning its numbers change too little over time, to accurately mark when an infection occurred.1

“Kieffer’s success is tightly linked to her enthusiasm,” says Stuart Ray, a Johns Hopkins School of Medicine immunologist who advised Kieffer in the lab. “Her work is distinguished by the rigor with which she plans and performs experiments.”

After grad school, Kieffer knew she wanted to stay in infectious disease research, and Vertex Pharmaceuticals seemed like the perfect fit. “The company was just embarking on the Phase I [trial] of their drug Telaprevir,” an oral protease inhibitor for treating hepatitis C infection, she says. “It was a chance to get involved with an exciting study. [Vertex] has always produced elegant scientific work and is committed to transformative medicine.”

Since joining Vertex 5 years ago, Kieffer, who recently determined the prevalence of drug-resistant hepatitis C virus (HCV) variants in patients prior to treatment with protease inhibitors,2 has emerged as a leader in the race to develop new drugs for hepatitis C—a widespread disease with limited treatment options and a very low cure rate. She is currently the group leader of the company’s clinical virology department and is helping to manage its Phase III clinical trial of Telaprevir, which in earlier studies nearly doubled hepatitis C cure rates over currently used therapies while cutting the treatment time in half.3

“Within the field of HCV resistance, her research has been quite impactful,” says Shelley George, vice president of Vertex’s clinical department. “[She] is a very innovative scientist who has done pioneering work… As someone who is young, she has a bright future.”

Title: Group Leader, Virology, Vertex Pharmaceuticals, Inc.
Age: 32
Representative publications:

1. TL Kieffer et al., “Intrinsic stability of episomal circles formed during human immunodeficiency virus type 1 replication,” J Virol, 76:4138–44, 2002. (Cited in 72 papers)
2. DJ Bartels et al., “Natural prevalence of HCV variants with decreased sensitivity to NS3-4A protease inhibitors in treatment-naïve subjects,” J Infect Dis, 198:800–7, 2008. (Cited in 13 papers)
3. C. Hezode et al., “Telaprevir and Peginterferon with or without Ribavirin for chronic HCV infection,” N Engl J Med, 360:1839–50, 2009. (Cited in 27 papers)

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