October 2002: Grants Target AIDS Treatments and Vaccines
In October 2002, amfAR announced basic research grant awards totaling $760,000 for new research on HIV/AIDS. Over $360,000 was awarded for research on AIDS vaccines, new drugs to fight HIV, ways to eliminate viral reservoirs, the immune system's response to HIV, and the actions of viral proteins as they promote infection and cell death. Nearly $400,000 was awarded for two-year fellowships that enable investigators new to the field of AIDS research to conduct original studies under the guidance of experienced scientific sponsors.
Designing An Effective AIDS Vaccine
Despite more than two decades of intensive research on HIV and AIDS, there is still no cure. If available, an AIDS vaccine could either prevent or delay the onset of AIDS (a therapeutic vaccine), or perhaps even prevent HIV disease altogether (a sterilizing vaccine).
amfAR awarded two grants and one fellowship to researchers who will investigate novel methods of designing an AIDS vaccine, using new means of introducing the necessary vaccine components into the body, and studying the relationship between HIV's outer sugar coating and the immune response elicited by the virus.
amfAR was an early funder of AIDS vaccine research and produced one of the most promising breakthroughs in the field—genetic immunization, or DNA vaccines. In 1992, amfAR provided funding to Stephen Johnston, M.D., of the University of Texas Southewestern Medical Center in Dallas, for seminal studies on genetic immunization. As published in Nature in 1995, Dr. Johnston was the first to demonstrate that DNA vaccines could stimulate a strong immune response in animals, and his work galvanized the field of genetic immunization in the ensuing years.
New amfAR grantee Michael Cho, Ph.D., of Case Western Reserve University, will explore a variation on the genetic immunization paradigm first described by Dr. Johnston. Dr. Cho will introduce HIV proteins into a weakened form of the parainfluenza virus in an effort to elicit immune responses that would be particularly effective at reducing sexual transmission of HIV.
Searching for New HIV Inhibitors
With as many as three-quarters of HIV-infected patients harboring virus that is resistant to at least one of the currently available antiretrovirals, there is an urgent need for new anti-HIV drugs.
One of amfAR's new grantees, Kit Lam, Ph.D., of the University of California, Davis, is searching for compounds that inhibit two of the proteins embedded in the outer membrane of HIV. If successful, Dr. Lam's research could lead to new entry inhibitors, which interfere with HIV's ability to enter and infect healthy cells, and broaden the range of treatment options.
Dr. Lam is using a combinatorial library technique to search through thousands of chemical compounds for substances that have the desired qualities. His research ties in well with that of amfAR grantees Drs. Parniak and Gabuzda, the first two scientists funded under amfAR's targeted combinatorial library research initiative. See the sidebar for more on combinatorial libraries.
Viral Reservoirs and Viral Latency
The development of viral reservoirs represents a major impediment to the eradication of HIV with highly active antiretroviral therapy, or HAART. These reservoirs consist of immune, and perhaps other, cells that are infected with HIV but lie dormant, not producing any virus. As such, they are beyond the reach of antiretroviral drugs, which can only kill the virus while it is actively reproducing.
Secondo Sonza, Ph.D., from the Macfarlane Burnett Centre for Medical Research and Public Health in Melbourne, Australia, will study the process whereby cells transition from actively producing HIV to a state of latency in which they lie dormant and impervious to HAART. Dr. Sonza's findings may allow scientists to devise ways of eliminating HIV reservoirs or even preventing their development.
In September 2002, amfAR released a new request for proposals (RFP), soliciting basic research projects in HIV/AIDS with a special emphasis on viral reservoirs and viral latency. This RFP will hopefully stimulate productive research in the area of viral reservoirs and latency that may ultimately lead to the eradication of HIV reservoirs. See the sidebar for more information on this RFP.