The Kestler family lived in a small house on 14 acres of farmland in a tiny place called Penfield, New York. Kestler was the middle child – an older sister and a younger brother.
In spring 1968, Kestler’s brother, Michael, age 9, caught rheumatic fever.
“We were all of the sudden catapulted into a new world of ‘What are we going to do?’” said Kestler, who was 10 at the time.
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, like people are right now,” Kestler said, referring to the coronavirus outbreak. “My earliest recollection of doing anything medical or scientific was reading our family medical journal.”
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,” Kestler said. “It naturally tries to create blood clots to isolate the micro-organism in your bloodstream, to contain the infection.”
But those blood clots are deadly. The doctors who treated his brother wanted to break them up.
“Today, we have a drug called a tissue plasminogen activator, or r-tPA, that can be used to break down those clots, but that wasn’t available back then,” Kestler noted.
Instead, doctors prescribed aspirin.
“I can remember him pounding down 20 aspirin a day,” he said. “That’s a massive amount of aspirin.”
His brother survived rheumatic fever. Today, he’s 63 years old and a retired postmaster with five grandchildren.
“He has more grandkids than I do,” said Kestler, who doesn’t have any yet himself.
Honoring his mom
Kestler says his mother, Helen, was the rock of his family.
“I’ve always tried to pay my mother back because of the sacrifices and all the things she went through.”
She passed away in 2000, but she’s never really left him.
“I imagine her in my classroom all the time today,” he said. “I like to tell jokes and things and my audience is always her. 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.”
As a teenager Kestler became the only source of income for his family. He got a job at the local supermarket as a bag and stock boy. But his family life took its toll on his high school grades, and it led to a moment in the school’s guidance office he’d never forget.
“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,” Kestler recalled. “I remember that day very well.”
The road to research
Kestler started his education at Monroe Community College in 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, where he studied the genetics and regulation of E. coli.
Kestler then attended Harvard Medical School and studied HIV/AIDS.
“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,” he said.
Kestler was a postdoctoral student at Harvard and then an instructor in its medical school from 1986 to 1991. He then accepted an appointment in 1991 at the Cleveland Clinic’s world-renowned Lerner College of Medicine as an assistant professor and continued his work in HIV/AIDS research there until 1997.
Teaching the next generation of microbiology scientists
Harry Kestler is a pioneer in HIV/AIDS.
“We did have some major accomplishments,” he said while sitting in his lab at LCCC, where his HIV/AIDS research continues today. Among those accomplishments is demonstrating that AIDS was caused by a virus. “There were a lot of conspiracy theories about its origins,” he said.
He also came up with a live attenuated vaccine by accident.
“It dropped into my lap and I said this is probably something big. Of course, that paper still gets people referencing it,” Kestler said.
And at the Cleveland Clinic, his team came up with a second vaccine.
“Believe it or not,” he said as referenced his lab at LCCC, “we’re working on that still today in this room.”
Today, Kestler’s microbiology 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.
Kestler hasn’t yet won that Noble Prize, but he still has a version of that goal.
“I have a big army of students who, I think, a couple of them are going to win the Nobel Prize,” he said. “And I think I’d get at least a little bit of claim on that prize.”