NEW YORK, Feb. 15, 2018 — amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research, today announced a pair of research grants that renew its support for innovative approaches to HIV cure research. Totaling nearly $1 million, the Investment grants will allow two collaborative teams of HIV researchers and bioengineers to embark on a second phase of projects initiated with amfAR funding awarded in February 2017.
“The field of bioengineering opens up exciting new frontiers for HIV cure research,” said amfAR CEO Kevin Robert Frost. “Nanotechnology, for example, is at the forefront of biomedical research since it has been effective at delivering highly targeted therapies that benefit a wide range of conditions and diseases. We hope it could offer the same benefits for HIV.”
amfAR’s Investment grants are milestone-based awards that provide up to $1.5 million to each research team over four years in three phases. They are part of amfAR’s $100 million Countdown to a Cure for AIDS initiative, which is aimed at developing the scientific basis of a cure by the end of 2020.
A highly targeted “shock and kill” approach
Nanoparticles, highly malleable carriers that are a thousand times smaller than a cell, have been shown to be useful in applications from creating synthetic skin for wound healing to cleaning up oil spills. Dr. Kim Woodrow of the University of Washington in Seattle is a leader in the field who pioneered a fiber-based nanoparticle drug delivery system for improving female reproductive tract health. In phase I of their Investment grant, Dr. Woodrow partnered with Dr. Keith Jerome, an HIV cure scientist at the University of Washington, to formulate new drug combinations loaded onto nanoparticles targeting the latent HIV reservoir.
The nanoparticles preferentially delivered latency reversing agents to CD4 T cells, which reawakened the reservoir, a prerequisite for immune directed killing of the cell in a “shock and kill” approach to curing HIV. In phase II of the grant, Drs. Jerome and Woodrow are moving beyond petri dish experiments to test the loaded nanoparticles in non-human primates and to measure their effects on the reservoir.
The principal obstacle to an HIV cure is that the immune system is not able to distinguish HIV-infected reservoir cells from uninfected cells. Being able to identify and exploit these differences that are not registered by the immune system would represent a monumental advance toward an HIV cure.
Dr. Hui Zhang of Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore is applying his expertise in a protein “fingerprinting” technique called glycoproteomics to this challenge. Dr. Zhang was a member of a research team that used this technology to identify the differences between benign and malignant ovarian tumors. In Phase I of the second Investment grant, Dr. Zhang partnered with HIV scientist Dr. Weiming Yang, also at Johns Hopkins University, and applied this technology to identify proteins on the surface of latent reservoir cells that differed from uninfected cells. In Phase II of their project, Drs. Zhang and Yang will determine whether these newly identified proteins are able to distinguish the reservoir in patient samples.
“These Investment grants are a mechanism to enlist expertise from the growing nanomedicine and molecular fingerprinting fields to design smart, efficient and targeted approaches to cure HIV,” said Rowena Johnston, vice president and director of research at amfAR. “These truly innovative projects underscore the importance of synergy and collaborative relationships in expanding the boundaries of HIV cure research.”
amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research, is one of the world’s leading nonprofit organizations dedicated to the support of AIDS research, HIV prevention, treatment education, and advocacy. Since 1985, amfAR has invested more than $517 million in its programs and has awarded more than 3,300 grants to research teams worldwide.