New amfAR awards accelerate research towards HIV cure

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Renewal funding of $850,000 will go to a consortium of European researchers

amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research, have announced a new round of research grants totaling more than $1.4 million. The vast majority of the funding will support cure-focused research projects.

Renewal funding of $850,000 will go to a consortium of European researchers that aims to replicate the case of the ‘Berlin patient,’ the first and only person known to have been cured of HIV. Diagnosed with leukemia, the patient was given a stem cell transplant with a twist: The cells he received were taken from a donor with a rare genetic mutation conferring resistance to HIV infection. He remains virus-free.

Working within the amfAR Research Consortium on HIV Eradication (ARCHE), a research programme launched in 2010 to explore potential strategies for eliminating HIV, the scientists will study the outcomes of HIV patients who undergo different types of stem cell transplants. Led by Javier Martinez-Picado, of IrsiCaixa in Spain and Annemarie Wensing of University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands, the consortium has already identified a group of patients who have undergone transplants, and continues to monitor their progress in the hope of generating new knowledge that can inform more widely applicable interventions.

“We’re excited to continue our support of the scientists in the European consortium,” said, Kevin Robert Frost, Chief Executive Officer, amfAR. “They have made good progress since we began supporting their work last year, and they have real potential for significantly advancing the field of HIV cure research.”

In addition, amfAR awarded a total of $600,000 to four promising young scientists who will each receive $150,000 over two years. These Mathilde Krim Fellowships in Basic Biomedical Research, named in honour of amfAR’s Founding Chairman Dr Mathilde Krim, are awarded annually to nurture new talent within the HIV/AIDS research field.

Two of the Fellows will study aspects of the reservoirs of latent virus that are the main obstacle to eradicating HIV.

Luis Agosto of Boston Medical Center, will explore a mechanism that involves the covert shuttling of HIV between cells, which could be an important factor by which the virus evades the immune response and thus may maintain the viral reservoir. Liang Shan of Yale University in New Haven, CT, will use a humanised mouse model to test the efficacy of latency reversing drugs, studying their ability to reactivate HIV so that the immune system can kill those cells that harbour the virus.

Louise Scharf at the California Institute of Technology in Pasadena, CA, will study the molecular structure of broadly neutralising antibodies isolated from two HIV-infected patients to better understand how these powerful antibodies can help in the development of a vaccine against HIV.

And Amit Sharma of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, WA, will explore how Rhesus macaques can be better utilised as an animal model in vaccine studies. Since the macaques are not susceptible to HIV and therefore cannot be used to study HIV specific antibodies, scientists have made viruses that are part SIV (the simian version of HIV) and part HIV, called SHIVs. However, not all SHIVs replicate efficiently, which limits their usefulness in the lab. Sharma is looking into what restricts the replication of some SHIVs but not others. His findings could help accelerate the field of vaccine research.

“The Krim Fellows are doing work that could produce major contributions to HIV/AIDS cure and vaccine research,” said Dr Rowena Johnston, Vice President and Director of Research, amfAR. “Their projects are exciting and innovative, and we look forward to closely following their progress.”

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