Closing in on a cure - Seattle-based researcher among four new Krim Fellows
 

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posted Friday, December 21, 2012 - Volume 40 Issue 51

Closing in on a cure - Seattle-based researcher among four new Krim Fellows
by James Whitely - SGN Staff Writer

On December 13, the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR) announced its sixth round of Mathilde Krim Fellowships in Basic Biomedical Research. Each of the four $125,000 grants is designed to support the work of young HIV/AIDS researchers working on projects ranging from cure research to vaccine development.

'The research being done by these new Krim Fellows is exciting, innovative, and potentially groundbreaking,' said Dr. Rowena Johnston, amfAR's vice president and director of research. 'Each of the Krim Fellows is doing work that could produce major contributions in four separate areas of HIV/AIDS research: cure research, epidemiological research, vaccine development, and treatment development. Each is at the forefront of the current demands for addressing the pandemic.'

STUDYING HIV MUTATIONS
Lucie Etienne, Ph.D., at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center in Seattle, will use her $125,000 grant to study transmission of the disease, specifically the genetic changes that occurred in the non-human primate versions of the HIV/AIDS virus and the mutations that originally made the virus viable in humans. She hopes this information will help quantify the risk of other viruses making similar 'species jumps.'

The other three new Krim Fellows are Christine Durand, M.D., of Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine; Alon Herschhorn, Ph.D., of the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute; and Leopold Kong, Ph.D., of the Scripps Research Institute.

Dr. Durand will investigate the impact of cancer and transplant therapy on HIV-1 reservoirs, specifically in the case of the 'Berlin Patient' - the first person known to have been cured of HIV - to determine which of the several interventions was responsible for curing him. She will study each of the three major possibilities separately: chemotherapy, immune-suppressive drugs, and stem-cell transplantation. Working with Durand will be her mentor, Dr. Robert Siliciano, a longtime amfAR grantee.

Dr. Herschhorn plans to research the mechanism of HIV-1 entry inhibition by novel small molecules in an effort to design drugs that could more effectively prevent the entry of HIV into cells. He plans to identify leads that might prevent HIV entry at any stage of the multi-step process that begins with the first contact between the virus and the cell, until the virus is absorbed into the cell. The compounds might serve as the basis of new drugs for further development, but in the meantime they may help researchers understand more about the complex chain of events that allows HIV to enter cells.

TRYING SOMETHING NEW
Dr. Kong will approach HIV vaccine research in an entirely new way. By conducting structural studies of glycan-specific sites of vulnerability of HIV-1 gp120, he will attempt to develop a vaccine on the basis of the protective coating of sugar-like molecules that surround the virus. The coating is thought to hamper the development of antibodies that might form the basis of a vaccine. Dr. Kong will try to determine whether this protective coating can instead be turned against the virus to render it vulnerable to destruction by the body's immune system.

'What's particularly gratifying is that several of our current or former grantees are mentoring these Krim Fellows, reinforcing how important amfAR funding is to several generations of scientists,' Johnston said. 'Together, they're making important discoveries that contribute to our understanding of the virus and how to overcome it.'

AmfAR is one of the world's leading nonprofit organizations dedicated to the support of AIDS research, HIV prevention, treatment education, and advocacy of sound AIDS-related public policy. Since 1985, amfAR has invested more than $340 million in its programs and has awarded grants to more than 2,000 research teams worldwide. Since 2008, the organization has awarded more than $3 million in Krim Fellowships, named in honor of its founding chair, Dr. Mathilde Krim.

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