By Brittany Llorente
PORT ST. LUCIE -- After receiving a grant from amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research, a group of researchers at the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute, headed by Dr. Nicholas Chomont, will begin a new study to help further understanding the Human immunodeficiency virus.
The grant was part of a $1.5 million cure-focused research grant from the amfAR Research Consortium on HIV Eradication program that was divided among several groups all over the world. The grant is the largest of its kind, and nearly $600,000 of the grant went to Dr. Chomont and his team.
Dr. Rowena Johnston, amfAR vice president and director of research said that there are several groundbreaking HIV studies that have taken place due to grants given by the ARCHE program including a program lead by Dr. Timothy Henrich.
Earlier in July, in Boston, Dr. Henrich reported the case of two HIV-positive patients who have shown no signs of HIV after undergoing stem-cell transplants.
There are others.
"In March, there was the first case of an infant being cured of HIV in Atlanta," Ms. Johnson said.
With new grants being given to research teams, Dr. Johnson hopes that the collaborative efforts of experts in their fields will bring new perspective and hopefully a cure or solution to HIV.
"We always encourage and require that grant applicants are a team," she said. "It is easier to solve the low hanging fruit. Each of the members of a team can solve problems that get us closer to a cure."
Since early 2004, Dr. Chomont has been working with doctors and scientists from across the world to help with research on the HIV reservoir, or the fraction of the virus that persists despite taking antiretroviral therapy, that exists largely in the CD4+ T memory cells, which play a large part in the immune system.
According to a statement from amfAR, "Emerging evidence suggests that the proportion of the reservoir that resides in different subsets of CD4+ T cells - central, transitional, effector, na´ve, memory stem cells - may vary between patients. The subsets of CD4+ T cells in which the reservoir predominates in turn can influence the size of the total reservoir. Dr. Chomont and colleagues will investigate which subsets constitute the major fraction of the reservoir and whether this changes over the course of the infection or with the stage of infection at which antiretroviral therapy is initiated. Understanding the dynamics of the reservoir may shed light on whether strategies to directly target various subsets of CD4+ T cells may be a productive strategy to cure HIV."
The research team, along with Dr. Chomont, will include Jintanat Ananworanich, M.D., Ph.D, Asier Saez-Cirion, Ph.D., Sarah Palmer, Ph.D. and Seven Deeks, M.D.
"This amfAR ARCHE grant is an international collaboration that involves VGTI, UCSF, the NIH(VRC) The Thai Red Cross (Thailand), Institut Pasteur (France) and the University of Sydney," Dr. Chamont said. "The overarching goal is to identify when and where HIV starts to hide in cells and anatomical compartments that we name "reservoirs" and which are not targeted with the current anti HIV drugs available on the market. From the previous work we've done at the Vaccine and Gene Therapy Institute, we know that to answer these questions you have to look at very rare subsets of cells that are present in the blood and in tissues (such as the gut). We were approached by Dr. Johnson from the amfAR to build a project that would use the best of all of us. We're all working on similar questions, but using different approaches. It made perfect sense to have us collaborating together, to get the best expert in a particular field."
If successful in their study, doctors will be able to identify reservoirs that are established early in infection.
"We will also be able to identify reservoirs that can persist after more than a decade of treatment," Dr. Chomont said. "It will be essential to develop successful strategy to eliminate the virus: You need to know first what you should target, and this study will hopefully answer that question."
Dr. Chomont's team will start lab work this month.
For more information on amfAR and ARCHE, visit amfAR.org.