New amfAR grants enlist help of bioengineers to overcome obstacles to curing HIVOnline Only, Top Highlights, Section 4A Tuesday, February 28th, 2017
NEW YORK, NY — In a novel approach to conquering HIV, amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research, is pairing HIV researchers with bioengineers to address the main barrier to a cure for HIV: the persistent reservoirs of virus not cleared by antiretroviral therapy. A new round of Investment grants, totaling $1.2 million, will support six new research projects aimed at bringing to bear highly advanced technologies that until recently might have belonged in the pages of a science fiction novel.
“Over the past couple of decades, stunning advances in bioengineering have led to the development of new technologies and therapeutics that will likely have a profound impact on treating and eradicating diseases,” said amfAR CEO Kevin Robert Frost. “Many of these exciting new technologies have yet to be evaluated in the realm of HIV cure research, and we hope this new round of grants lays the groundwork for some innovative approaches to a cure.”
The Investment awards are milestone-based grants 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.
Bioengineers with expertise in cutting-edge technologies including microfluidics, gene-editing, nanotechnology, mass spectrometry, and single-cell magnetic levitation will work closely with leading HIV cure scientists to tackle some of the most intractable challenges in HIV cure research.
Magnetic levitation is a technology typically associated with high-speed transportation systems. But Timothy Henrich, M.D., of the University of California, San Francisco, and the amfAR Institute for HIV Cure Research, and bioengineer Utkan Demirci, Ph.D., from the Regents of the University of California, San Francisco, will apply a revolutionary approach called magnetic levitation of single cells to identify and characterize HIV reservoirs. Theorizing that HIV induces a change in the magnetism and density of reservoir cells, the scientists will use a device developed by Dr. Demirci that can suspend a single cell between magnets and measure its density. Such measurements could be used to help distinguish reservoir cells from uninfected cells, and to define a molecular signature that can be targeted by curative interventions.
Mass spectrometry is a method of identifying and quantifying molecules that has become an indispensable tool across a broad range of fields and applications. Harnessing the technology’s ability to “fingerprint” proteins, bioengineer Hui Zhang, Ph.D., and HIV scientist Weiming Yang, Ph.D., both at Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, will use mass spectrometry to identify molecules on the surface of the cells that differentiate the latent reservoir from uninfected cells. The researchers propose that cell surface markers could aid in the development of vaccines or other interventions to target and eliminate the latent reservoir.
“This is a very exciting round of research grants that forges some unlikely but potentially groundbreaking scientific alliances,” said Rowena Johnston, Ph.D., amfAR vice president and director of research. “These highly innovative projects will undoubtedly move HIV cure research in some extraordinary new directions that, we hope, will get us closer to our goal.”
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