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HIV cure, better therapies subjects of $6.3 million in grants to Pitt vaccine scientist duo

September 16, 2015

PITTSBURGH, Sept. 16, 2015 - A husband-wife team researching a cure for HIV/AIDS at the University of Pittsburgh Center for Vaccine Research (CVR) recently received $6.3 million total in two grants from the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

The grants are the latest in the team's successful run garnering NIH support for their HIV research, now totaling $23 million since they came to Pitt six years ago.

"HIV has proven to be an intriguing challenge for an entire generation of scientists, and Pitt has established a multidisciplinary base of expertise to tackle it from every angle," said Ronald Montelaro, Ph.D., professor and co-director of Pitt's CVR. "These grants further cement the critical role our researchers will continue to play in developing a cure."

Ivona Pandrea, M.D., Ph.D., professor at Pitt's CVR, is principal investigator on a $3 million grant to look at the relation between accelerated aging characteristics linked to HIV infection and the non-AIDS comorbidities, or co-existing conditions, associated with this process. She will investigate the relation between hypercoagulation - which is excessive blood clotting strongly associated with death in HIV-infected patients on antiretroviral therapy - and accelerated aging, testing therapies to tackle both these processes.

Understanding and controlling comorbidities associated with HIV, particularly in patients receiving antiretroviral treatments, are among the most important priorities of current AIDS research. People with HIV who take medication can live for decades without progressing to AIDS, but they are far more likely than their peers without HIV to have cardiovascular, lung, kidney and liver diseases; osteoporosis; and to experience accelerated aging - where their bodies more closely resemble those of someone years or decades older.

"Modern medicine has made incredible strides in helping people with HIV to live nearly normal lifespans," said Dr. Pandrea. "However, until we can develop a cure, we need to improve the quality of life and health for people on HIV medications."

Cristian Apetrei, M.D., Ph.D., professor at Pitt's CVR, is principal investigator on a $3.3 million grant to look at the cellular reservoirs for HIV in the body in order to find ways to reactivate the virus from these reservoirs and help the immune system clear reactivated virus. Current HIV medications control HIV by making it difficult for the virus to replicate, but if patients stop taking the drugs the virus harbored in these reservoirs can quickly bounce back.

There have been a few high-profile cases where it appeared that people had been cured of HIV. One was the "Mississippi baby" who was later discovered to still have the virus, and another was the "Berlin patient," a man who had many medical interventions, including stem cell transplants, and now does not have the virus.

"His case is being thoroughly studied," said Dr. Apetrei. "But we do not know for sure which of his treatments worked, or why. My research will carefully deconstruct various treatments that could be responsible for a cure to find out if there is one that could be replicated."

The NIH grant supporting Dr. Pandrea's research is R01-HL123096, and Dr. Apetrei's research is R01-AI119346-01A1.
-end-
About the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences

The University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences include the schools of Medicine, Nursing, Dental Medicine, Pharmacy, Health and Rehabilitation Sciences and the Graduate School of Public Health. The schools serve as the academic partner to the UPMC (University of Pittsburgh Medical Center). Together, their combined mission is to train tomorrow's health care specialists and biomedical scientists, engage in groundbreaking research that will advance understanding of the causes and treatments of disease and participate in the delivery of outstanding patient care. Since 1998, Pitt and its affiliated university faculty have ranked among the top 10 educational institutions in grant support from the National Institutes of Health. For additional information about the Schools of the Health Sciences, please visit http://www.health.pitt.edu.

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E-mail: ZellnerWL@upmc.edu

University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences

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