The National Institutes of Health has awarded approximately $30 million in annual funding over the next five years to six research collaborations working to advance basic medical science toward an HIV cure. The awards comprise the second iteration of the Martin Delaney Collaboratory: Towards an HIV-1 Cure program and are a part of President Barack Obama’s pledge to invest in HIV cure research. The research program is supported by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), the National Institute on Drug Abuse, the National Institute of Mental Health, and the National Institute of Neurological Disorders and Stroke, all part of the NIH.
“The two greatest challenges remaining in HIV/AIDS research are finding a cure and developing a safe and effective preventive vaccine. This year, NIAID has made significant investments toward both of these critical goals,” said NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, M.D.
“A simple, safe and scalable cure for HIV would accelerate progress toward ending the HIV/AIDS pandemic,” he added. “Through the leadership of talented investigators with a diversity of expertise, the Martin Delaney Collaboratory program will accelerate progress in this key research endeavour.” Research toward a cure also is an overarching priority for the NIH HIV/AIDS research program.
While advances in antiretroviral therapy (ART) have transformed HIV infection from a life-threatening disease to a manageable, chronic condition, a cure remains elusive. In 2010, NIAID established the Martin Delaney Collaboratory program in honor of the late HIV/AIDS activist Martin Delaney, a skilled and passionate advocate for cure research who served on the NIAID AIDS Research Advisory Committee.
The collaboratory program supports international HIV cure research networks and encourages collaborative efforts to address the multifaceted puzzle of curing HIV. While the scientific community knows far more about HIV/AIDS since the disease was first reported more than 35 years ago, a cure remains elusive in large part because HIV has the ability to establish a reservoir in the body by inserting its genetic material into that of immune cells that have a long lifespan. The virus remains in these cells in a latent state, invisible to the immune system and to anti-HIV therapies. ART only targets HIV when it is actively replicating, so the treatment can never clear the cells containing the latent, non-replicating virus from an infected individual’s blood and tissues. If an individual discontinues ART, the virus emerges from these cells and reconstitutes a widespread infection. Tackling this problem therefore requires experts with expansive knowledge of HIV pathology, genetics and the immune system.
Since the first three Martin Delaney Collaboratory grants were awarded, the program has evolved to include more grants and industry partners with an increased emphasis on translational and clinical research. NIAID funded highly meritorious project applications that demonstrated elegant experimental design, leveraged investigators’ expertise in the related fields of vaccine and cancer immunotherapy research and made use of public-private partnerships to ensure access to innovative new approaches.
The new collaboratory projects will launch novel investigations into HIV cure strategies that include immunotherapy, therapeutic vaccines and gene modification. The awardees will utilize a variety of experimental techniques to draw HIV out of its reservoir and eliminate the virus. These strategies include testing latency-reversing agents alone and in combination, genetically engineering immune cells to better target latently infected cells, and optimizing combinations of anti-HIV antibodies and other immunotherapeutic drugs. While each of the principal investigators’ institutions are located in the United States, the collaborative projects will involve laboratories on five continents, including Africa, the first time that continent has been part of an international HIV cure research program.