With 12 grants the Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) is giving out the largest ever sum of money in one round.
It’s part of the foundation’s Countdown to a Cure for HIV/AIDS campaign, which aims to find a “broadly applicable” cure to HIV/AIDS by 2020. Part of the money comes from a $720,000 donation from the Foundation for AIDS and Immune Research.
“The scientific challenges to a cure for HIV have been illuminated, and with the right investments, these challenges can be overcome,” said amfAR CEO Kevin Robert Frost. “That’s the philosophy behind amfAR’s “Countdown to a Cure,” and these new grants represent our strengthened commitment to high-impact, smarter research that will accelerate our progress toward a cure.”
According to amfAR, the new grants will enable researchers to explore strategies to overcome a critical barrier to curing HIV— eliminating reservoirs of infected cells that persist in various parts of the body and remain below the radar of a person’s immune system or standard HIV medications. To this end, amfAR threw down four roadblocks to accomplish its mission: chart the precise locations of the reservoirs, understand how persistent HIV reservoirs are established and maintained, record how much virus they hold and ultimately, eliminate them.
Out of the 12 grantees of $2.15 million, $360,000 went to Dr. Cheryl Cameron and Dr. Rafick-Pierre Sekaley at the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute of Florida each getting half of the pie.
Here’s what these researchers are going to work on, according to amfAR (to learn more about all of the amfAR-funded researchers, go to http://bit.ly/NmFfMy):
Dissecting the Role of the mTOR pathway in CD8 Restriction of HIV Persistence
Cheryl Cameron, Ph.D., from the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute of Florida, Port St. Lucie, FL
Cameron and her colleagues will investigate the possibility that mTOR, a protein normally involved in several functions important to a cell’s growth and ability to make proteins, plays a role in determining the size of the HIV reservoir. They are building on the hypothesis that an immune suppressive drug called sirolimus, which blocks the mTOR protein, may have contributed to the reduced reservoir size in HIV patients receiving stem cell transplants to treat their cancer. Cameron is looking to confirm the relationship between mTOR and reservoir size, which could lead to a way to treat patients to reduce their reservoir sizes.
Modulating Inflammation for Immune Reconstitution and HIV Eradication
Rafick-Pierre Sékaly, Ph.D., from the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute Florida, Port St Lucie, FL
After the Berlin patient was cured of HIV, researchers became very interested in the potential of gene therapy to generate a source of cells to transplant into HIV-positive patients as a potential cure. One company, Sangamo, has used an enzyme called zinc finger nuclease to cut the protein CCR5 out of patients’ T cells in a test tube, producing cells similar to those transplanted into the Berlin patient. After transplanting these modified cells back into patients, they have observed varying levels of restoration of the immune system. Sekaly hypothesizes that the survival of the transplanted cells depends on the level of immune inflammation at the time of transplantation. He will use samples of blood and tissue from the Sangamo studies to test his hypothesis.
“Our scientific reviewers were unanimous in praising the caliber of research proposals submitted in this round of awards,” said Dr. Rowena Johnston, amfAR’s vice president and director of research. “Our job is to explore as many routes as possible to get to a broadly applicable cure, and that means equipping scientists around the world with the resources they need to help us achieve our goal sooner rather than later.”
AmfAR’s been around since 1985 and has invested more than $388 million in its programs and has awarded more than 3,300 grants to research teams worldwide. To learn more, go to amfar.org.