Lab ‘Legend’ Dr. Margaret Keller delivers for L.A. newborns
In the early 1990s, at the height of the AIDS epidemic, Dr. Margaret Keller knew the brains of HIV infected children held the key to their survival.
Keller was the director of the Pediatric HIV and AIDS Program at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center, where she treated children infected with the virus in the womb, through blood exposure during delivery, or through their mothers’ breast milk.
“The brain, unlike other organs, is a site where the HIV virus can hide out and cause ongoing damage for years,” said the infectious diseases specialist in.
Even though HIV-infected children were prescribed drugs for the virus, it became evident that it was important to monitor their brains throughout their lives. Persistent inflammation could affect their memory, learning and the ability to perform routine tasks.
“It’s important to detect this as soon as possible, so we can alter their medication and help them lead normal lives,” Keller said.
When Keller began her brain research in 1999, MRI scans were not sensitive enough to detect subtle damage to the brain.
“We knew there were newer imaging technologies that could be used,” she said.
Keller partnered with UCLA imaging physicist Dr. Albert Thomas, who had developed a new, more sensitive MRI technique to measure brain chemicals. She secured National Institutes of Health funding for their research, and found patients from Los Angeles area hospitals for studies.
Hers was the first team in the world to use advanced imaging technology for pediatric HIV patients.
Their groundbreaking work enabled doctors to detect brain irregularities before they caused permanent damage in HIV infected children.
“These children suffered from terrible infections because the virus was destroying their immune system,” she said. “Sadly, we lost some patients.”
Keller and her team conducted their AIDs research at the Lundquist Institute (formerly LA BioMed) on the Harbor-UCLA Medical Center campus in Torrance.
“Not only did we work together on research, we also worked together to treat patients at Harbor-UCLA,” she said.
For her “innovative research and outstanding service in finding solutions to the most pressing medical problems of our day,” Dr. Keller was named a Lundquist Institute Legend at the research center’s 18th Annual Legends dinner last November.
Dr. Richard Casaburi, an internationally recognized expert in COPD (chronic obstructive pulmonary disease) and the medical director of the Lundquist Intitute’s Rehabilitation Clinical Trials Center, was also honored at the dinner.
When Keller began her work with pediatric AIDS patients, she told her husband Robert she would only stay in the field for five years because of its emotional toll. But, she said, she “got caught up in the challenge of preventing HIV and finding better treatments.”
That same determination, coupled with a desire to understand the world around her, led Keller on the path to becoming a doctor.
Keller grew up in Boston. When she enrolled in the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to study physics in 1964, she was one of only 44 women in a class of 900. The women’s dorm was built the year before she arrived.
She admits to having been overwhelmed by the “extraordinarily difficult first semester,” but she persisted and soon excelled in the sciences.
In her junior year, Keller volunteered Friday nights in the emergency room of a local hospital. She found “great satisfaction” in helping patients and enjoyed the scientific aspects of medicine.
“There weren’t a lot of women studying to be doctors at that time, but I didn’t let that stop me,” she said.
After MIT, she received a scholarship to Washington University School of Medicine in St. Louis. She subsequently transferred to Albert Einstein College of Medicine in New York City to be with her future husband, whom she had met at MIT. He was there working on his post-doctoral fellowship in physics.
It was a fortuitous move personally and professionally. While in New York she spent a month in the communicable disease center at a Bronx hospital treating children with tuberculosis, whooping cough and measles.
“I found out I really loved working on infectious diseases,” she said. “This was all before HIV.”
Keller and her husband moved to California in 1971 so she could complete her residency at the University of California San Diego. She subsequently took a position at Harbor-UCLA Medical Center
When HIV exploded on the scene in the early 1980s, Keller felt compelled to apply her infectious diseases and immunology training to improving care for the hospital’s HIV patients. She felt equally compelled to help prevent the spread of the deadly virus by launching education and awareness campaigns.
HIV had taken a disproportionate toll on the African-American community. The late Congresswoman Juanita Millender-McDonald enlisted Keller to give presentations to teens and adults at the Carson Community Center.
Professional actors dramatized how people became infected, patients living with the virus spoke about their day-to-day challenges and doctors were on hand to answer questions.
Fear and ignorance replaced education and awareness.
Keller’s team made sure women who came to deliver at the hospital were tested and if necessary, treated for HIV. At the peak of the crisis, 20 babies a year were diagnosed with HIV in Los Angeles County. That number fell dramatically and there have been no cases of mother to child transmission at Harbor-UCLA since 1994.
“That’s a huge success story,” Keller said.
Keller, reflecting on her work at Harbor-UCLA and the Lundquist Institute, is thankful for having had an impact on the lives of her patients.
“There was tremendous excitement and satisfaction from being part of a worldwide effort to conquer HIV,” she said.
Even though she is retired, Keller still heads to the Institute twice a week to participate in patient care conferences and to submit articles for publication in medical journals.
She and her husband raised two daughters on the Peninsula. One is an emergency room doctor, the other a ballerina. She spends her free time taking long walks on the peninsula and swimming.
The couple also makes time to enjoy the ocean sunsets. Ever the scientist, she is still in awe of the green flash.
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