amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

Leading the Charge in Cure Research

by Jeffrey Laurence, M.D.

The search for a cure has been the top priority of amfAR’s research program for more than a decade, bolstered by numerous cycles of targeted grants and fellowship awards as well as the recent collaborative work of the amfAR Research Consortium on HIV Eradication (ARCHE). A critical barrier to curing AIDS is the persistence of reservoirs of latently infected cells. People with HIV who are successfully treated with antiretroviral drugs (ARV) still have infected cells in which HIV remains silent, invulnerable to attack by the immune system or standard anti-HIV drugs. Strategies to destroy these latent reservoirs─including enhanced immune attack and a “shock and kill” approach─are active areas of our grantees’ research.


In the March issue of the journal Cell Stem Cell, three current and former ARCHE grantees, Dr. Keith Jerome from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle and Drs. Steven Deeks and Joseph McCune from the University of California-San Francisco, acknowledge “the amfAR Eradication Program for its contributions in moving the cure agenda forward.” The authors─who met and first discussed the idea for their paper at a stem cell think tank organized by amfAR in September 2011─suggest that one might be able to create an HIV-resistant immune system in an infected person by genetically engineering a person’s own stem cells. This strategy is based on the one successful “proof of concept” that AIDS can be cured: the “Berlin patient.” The authors admit that such “gene modification of stem cells will be an expensive intervention” but suggest that “it may prove to be cost-effective given that decades-long administration of antiretroviral therapy would cost several hundred thousand dollars per person.”

Working on the “shock and kill” approach, another ARCHE member, Dr. Robert Siliciano of Johns Hopkins University, describes his newest findings in the March issue of the Journal of Antimicrobial Chemotherapy. The “shock and kill” approach involves awakening latent virus and then killing it with ARVs, enhanced immune attack, or a combination of these methods. Using a model for latently infected T cells that they developed, Dr. Siliciano and colleagues tested a large number of chemical compounds—a “library”—to see which, if any, might activate growth of HIV without causing harm. They discovered two types of chemicals that not only could awaken HIV but did so without broadly stimulating the cells to produce potentially harmful immune hormones (cytokines). Supporting the possibility of turning such chemicals into useful drugs was the fact that they had characteristics of known drugs that are readily absorbed by the body and taken up by cells.

These contributions and the work of many other amfAR grantees were shared at the prestigious 19th annual Conference on Retroviruses and Opportunistic Infections (CROI) in Seattle March 5−8. More than 25 oral and poster presentations on the results of amfAR-funded research were given─including major oral presentations addressing AIDS cure strategies given by Sharon Lewin, Maria Buzón, Adam Spivak, Liang Shan, Sifei Xing, and Anthony Cillo─making it clear that amfAR is leading the charge in cure research. 

Dr. Laurence is amfAR’s senior scientific consultant.