July 18, 2011

Expanded research effort to seek cure for AIDS

Experts embark on joint five-year initiative to purge virus from those infected

A team of AIDS experts at Johns Hopkins and other institutions has embarked on a joint five-year research initiative to cure HIV disease by finding ways to completely purge the virus from the body in people already successfully suppressing the virus with antiretroviral drug therapy.

Major advances in anti-HIV drug treatment in the last two decades have meant viral control and relatively good health over long periods for millions of infected people worldwide, including hundreds of thousands of the estimated 1 million men and women living with HIV in the United States.

But ridding the body of small amounts of the virus hiding in immune system cells, as originally discovered by members of the Johns Hopkins team in 1995, has always been considered key to finding a cure.

“A lot of effort has gone into preventing the spread of HIV and into trying to develop a vaccine, so it is very exciting to tackle another cornerstone to the problem, which is how to eradicate HIV,” said virologist Janice Clements, vice dean for faculty and a professor at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine.

Clements and Johns Hopkins infectious disease specialist Robert Siliciano will both serve as co-investigators of the research consortium, called the Martin Delaney Collaboratory. Named after a well-known AIDS activist, the Martin Delaney group consists of researchers at nine U.S. universities and a major pharmaceutical company. The group is led by David Margolis at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill.

Funding support, totaling $32 million, comes from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, a member of the National Institutes of Health. The group will pursue a dozen or more projects to determine how HIV remains dormant and almost undetectable in the immune system’s T-cells, and to develop possible drug treatments to counter these HIV reservoirs.

“This group approach has me much more optimistic,” said Siliciano, whose initial discoveries of the viral reservoirs and their ability to evade antiretroviral drug therapies led him initially to doubt the possibility of a real cure for the disease. Now, he added, “after years of developing a better understanding of these HIV reservoirs, to the point where we can make and study latently infected T-cells in the laboratory, we are finally ready to go after them.” Siliciano is a professor at Johns Hopkins and a Howard Hughes Medical Institute investigator.

In addition to Johns Hopkins and the University of North Carolina, partners involved in the Martin Delaney Collaboratory are Case Western Reserve University; University of California, Davis; University of California, Los Angeles; University of California, San Diego; University of California, San Francisco; the Gladstone Institutes; University of Minnesota; University of Utah; and Merck Research Laboratories, based in Whitehouse Station, N.J.