New amfAR Grants Fund Search for the Cure
amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research, has announced its latest round of research grants under their Research Consortium on HIV Eradication (ARCHE). A total of $2.4 million will fund seven research teams from Berlin to Boston to Sydney to San Francisco to Chicago to Barcelona as they search for the cure to HIV/AIDS. This is the largest sum ever disbursed by amfAR in a single round of awards and this brings amfAR's investment in cure-focused research to more than $6 million so far this year.
"The case of the Berlin patient was a seminal development in HIV/AIDS research and caused many in the scientific community to think, for the first time, that a cure for HIV was actually possible," said amfAR CEO Kevin Robert Frost. "It certainly reinforced amfAR's commitment to finding a cure, and our ARCHE program is a reflection of our unwavering quest to bring this epidemic to an end in our lifetime."
It has been six years since the first case of a cure was reported in an HIV-positive man with leukemia who received a stem cell transplant from a donor with a rare genetic mutation conferring resistance to HIV infection. The case of "the Berlin patient" raised as many questions as it answered, and it dramatically changed the trajectory of HIV/AIDS research.
Among the recipients in the latest round of cure-focused research grants from amfAR, leading researchers from all over the world will continue to investigate precisely how the Berlin patient was cured and will explore other potential cure strategies that could one day be applied to the millions of people living with HIV/AIDS.
The new grants will support the work of seven teams of scientists working within the amfAR Research Consortium on HIV Eradication (ARCHE), an initiative launched in 2010 to explore potential strategies for eliminating HIV infection. This brings amfAR's investment in cure-focused research to more than $6 million so far this year.
Many researchers around the world have tried, so far unsuccessfully, to duplicate the case of Timothy Brown (the Berlin patient) to determine which were the crucial components of a highly complex intervention -- chemotherapy, total body irradiation, genetic mutation present in the transplanted cells, and/or the graft-versus-host disease that ensued.
The largest award in this round of grants will support a consortium of European researchers -- including Gero Hütter, M.D., the oncologist credited with Brown's cure -- to study the outcomes of HIV patients who undergo different types of stem cell transplants.
The European researchers, led by Javier Martinez-Picado, Ph.D., of IrsiCaixa in Spain and Annemarie Wensing, M.D., Ph.D., of University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands, anticipate having several HIV patients in need of stem cell transplants and they hope to generate new knowledge that can inform more widely applicable interventions.
Meanwhile, another team of European researchers led by Vanderson Rocha, M.D., Ph.D., of National Health Service Blood and Transplant, Cord Blood Banks, Oxford, in the United Kingdom will pre-screen a pool of blood stem cell donors for CCR5-delta32, the genetic mutation that renders people highly resistant to HIV infection and is believed to be responsible, at least in part, for Timothy Brown's cure.
Naturally present in around one to two percent of Caucasians, the mutation is most prevalent in Northern Europe and the researchers will focus their attention initially on cord blood banks in Sweden and Finland. They hope to determine which donors, based on their tissue types, have the greatest potential to harbor the CCR5 genetic mutation.
A team of researchers in the U.S. will receive funding to address one of the most pressing challenges in HIV research: determining whether people whose HIV has dropped to an undetectable level have been cured, or whether current tests are simply not sensitive enough to detect every last remnant of virus.
In a recent amfAR-funded study, Timothy Henrich, M.D., of Brigham and Women's Hospital in Boston described two patients who had received stem cell transplants to treat their cancer and in whom HIV could no longer be detected using the most sophisticated tests currently available. When the patients stopped taking antiretroviral therapy, their virus eventually returned, indicating that they had not been cured.
Dr. Henrich will collaborate with Ramesh Akkina, Ph.D., of Colorado State University in an effort to infuse cells taken from the Boston patients prior to viral rebound into mice engineered to contain human immune systems. If the mice become infected, this would represent a more sensitive test of HIV persistence than any other test currently available.
"amfAR's ARCHE program is continuing its tradition of pinpointing the important outstanding questions in research and targeting funding to those researchers who can answer them, wherever they are in the world," said Dr. Rowena Johnston, amfAR's vice president and director of research. "We are tremendously excited by the findings these grants could yield and confident they will open a number of new pathways to a cure."
For more information, visit www.amfar.org