Posted March 24, 2020
He is called “The Micro Prof” and for two weeks now, he has provided detailed daily video updates for the public on the coronavirus COVID-19 pandemic, emerging as a calming voice in a time of uncertainty. “The Micro Prof” is Harry Kestler, Ph.D., and for over three decades, he has studied infectious diseases.
Dr. Kestler is also a worldwide leader on HIV-AIDS, a community college success story and a professor of microbiology at Lorain County Community College.
Here is his story …
Kestler was raised on farmland in a tiny place called Penfield, New York and his family lived in a small house on the land. There were three children. The oldest was a girl. Two brothers made it three. The brothers shared a room.
“I was on the bottom bunk,” said Kestler, now 64. “My little brother was on the top bunk and I remember one time when he got sick and vomited, I just stayed in my bunk and didn’t move so I wouldn’t get hit by the rain,” he said with a smile and laugh at the memory.
In the spring of 1968, Kestler’s little brother, Michael, caught rheumatic fever. Michael was nine years old and Harry was 10.
“We were all of the sudden catapulted into a new world of, what are we going to do?”
Rheumatic fever swept across the world in the late 1960s and early 70s. The fever’s greatest danger was the damage it could do to the heart. “We were very scared at the time,” Kestler said. “Like people are right now,” he added referring to the coronavirus.
“My earliest recollection of doing anything medical or scientific was reading our family medical journal,” Harry said. And so, it started, the boy who would one day become a leading author in HIV-AIDS research tried to learn everything he could about his brother’s illness and how to treat it.
“The human body does something, when it has a disease like that, it naturally tries to create blood clots and the idea (the body) has is to isolate the micro-organism (bacteria) in your bloodstream (to contain the infection) but the blood clots are of course deadly,” Kestler said.
The doctors who treated his brother wanted to break up those blood clots. “Today, we have a drug called tissue plasminogen activator or r-tPA that can be used to break down those clots but that wasn’t available back then,” he noted. Instead, doctors prescribed aspirin. “I can remember him pounding down 20 aspirin a day! That’s a massive amount of aspirin to try and break up those clots.”
Harry’s brother made it. He survived rheumatic fever. Today, he’s 63 years old and a retired postmaster with five grandchildren. “He has more grandkids than I do,” Kestler said with a hint of envy – he doesn’t have any grandchildren, yet.
During his life Kestler said his mother, Helen Kestler, was the rock of the family. “I’ve always tried to pay my mother back because of the sacrifices and all the things she went through,” he said. She passed away in the year 2000 but she’s never really left him.
“I imagine her in my classroom all the time today. I like to tell jokes and things and my audience is always her,” he said. “I always imagine her in the back of my room.”
Harry needed his Mom as a boy, and she needed him too. “My Dad suffered from mental illness,” Kestler remembered. “My Mom had to basically do everything.” But Kestler would help and as a teenager, he became the only source of income for the family.
He got a job at the local supermarket as a bag and stock boy. “This place was called Star Super Market,” he said. “It was a very good job. I think I was making like $5 an hour, which in the 1970s was good money plus I had a few benefits.”
Harry’s family life took its toll on his high school grades though and led to a moment in the school’s guidance office that still lives with him today. “I went to see my guidance counselor about going to college and he didn’t seem to think I was college material. “ ‘Oh, you’re going to college?’ he said to me with disbelief. He thought I was more likely to become somebody who would pump gas.”
“I remember that day very well,” Harry said matter-of-factly.
Kestler started his education at Monroe Community College in Rochester, New York. Driven by his brother’s sickness and his father’s mental illness, he chose to study science and psychology. After his start at the local community college, he earned his master’s and his Ph.D. at the University of Rochester. “My Ph.D. was studying E. coli – the genetics and regulation of E. coli.”
Kestler was accepted into Harvard Medical School. “I chose to study HIV/AIDS at Harvard because I thought it was in that field, that I could really make a difference,” he said. “I wanted to save the world. I thought the HIV research was going to do that and I was going to get a cure, a vaccine and I was going to win a Nobel Prize.”
Kestler was a postdoctoral student at Harvard and then an instructor in their medical school from 1986 to 1991. He then accepted an appointment at The Cleveland Clinic’s world-renowned Lerner College of Medicine as an assistant professor in the summer of 1991 and continued his work in HIV/AIDS research at the Clinic until 1997.
Harry Kestler is a pioneer in HIV/AIDS.
“We did have some major accomplishments,” he said while sitting in his lab at Lorain County Community College where his HIV/AIDS research continues today. He noted some of them:
- “While at Harvard, I demonstrated that AIDS was caused by a virus which was a big deal because there were a lot of conspiracy theories about its origins.”
- “While at Harvard, I came up with a live attenuated vaccine by accident, actually. It dropped into my lap and I said this is probably something big. Of course, that paper still gets people referencing it.”
- “At the Cleveland Clinic, we came up with my second vaccine and believe it or not,” he said as he turned to reference his lab at LCCC, “we’re working on that still today in this room.”
His students study the CCR5 gene or suicide gene as it’s known. “Our goal is to create gene therapy that would not require a bone marrow transplant. It would require just introducing the gene into the patients and hopefully we can remove HIV from the earth,” he said.
“The big discovery of my life, though, is that we teach science wrong in this country,” he said. “We need to be teaching science from having kids experiencing science. Lab first and lecture later.”
Dr. Kestler is extremely passionate about his work as a professor and has inspired many students to continue their work in microbiology. He continues to share his expertise throughout the community with his daily updates on coronavirus which can be viewed here.