(PGN) A five-year study aimed at developing a cure for HIV is about to get underway in Philadelphia.
The National Institutes of Health announced last week that a collaborative team led by the Wistar Institute and University of Pennsylvania will be one of six grantees funded through the Martin Delaney Collaboratory: Towards an HIV-1 Cure.
The Philadelphia team will receive $23 million over the next five years for a combination immunotherapy study. The research will be led by coprincipal investigators Dr. Luis Montaner, director of the HIV-1 Immunopathogenesis Laboratory at Wistar, and Dr. James Riley, research associate professor at the Perelman School of Medicine at Penn.
The group includes about 30 researchers from Wistar and Penn, as well as Philadelphia FIGHT, Rockfeller University, VA San Diego Healthcare System, Johns Hopkins University, the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and University of Utah.
The local research, termed BEAT-HIV: Delaney Collaboratory to Cure HIV-1 Infection by Combination Immunotherapy, will combine two therapies Wistar and Penn were working on, respectively: immunotherapy in which pegylated interferon alpha 2b is used to boost the immune system against the HIV virus, and gene therapy that protects T cells from HIV infection while they attack the virus.
“We expect it to work really well, and now we’re going to find out,” Montaner told PGN. “And we hope that this will bring us that much closer to a cure.”
Researchers will be recruiting 60 participants, a process that will begin in about a year, once the trials have undergone necessary regulatory requirements.
The use of human trials sets the local study apart from many other HIV-cure studies, Montaner added.
“We’re going to be testing these concepts in humans, not animal models, but actual individuals being treated for HIV. So that will give us very clear domains of how to address the eradication of HIV so that, invariably, we will have the information we need to let us know how closer we are to a cure at the end of the five years.”
Montaner said the collaborators working on BEAT-HIV all have robust records of work in the cure-research field.
“We’ve been engaged in this line of investigation for over 15 years, and the same goes for our collaborators,” he said. “There was a natural joining of efforts with the work we’d been doing on stimulating the immune system and the gene-therapy work occurring over at Penn. Now we’re joined under a common effort.”
Philadelphia FIGHT has been a longtime partner of Wistar. For this latest project, trial participants will be seen at FIGHT’s Jonathan Lax Center and John Bell Health Center.
“Our two clinics are going to be the sites for the study,” explained FIGHT executive director Jane Shull. “People will come here, we’ll be following them doing study procedures. Our doctors will be the ones seeing them and collecting data.”
FIGHT will also undertake community-outreach efforts.
“We’re going to need to make sure that the community — defined as people living with HIV and their social networks — are aware this is going on,” Shull said. “We’re going to need to find a lot of people and they first need to know what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. I think if they understand that there’s a real chance that this research will lead directly to finding or contribute to finding a cure, they’ll be willing to jump on board.”
The clinical trials won’t begin enrolling for at least a year, but Wistar’s existing BEAT HIV Curative Trial is actively enrolling patients from throughout the Delaware Valley, including in Pennsylvania, New Jersey, Delaware and New York.
Participation in that study will not affect one’s ability to participate in the new study.