amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research

amfAR Ramps Up Investment in HIV Cure Research 

$1 million in grants awarded to four research teams—including one led by a Nobel laureate 

For Immediate Release 

Media Contact:
Cub Barrett, Program Communications Manager
(212) 806-1602

NEW YORK (February 10, 2012)—amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research on Friday announced four new grants to leading researchers from around the world in the Foundation’s most competitive round of HIV cure grants to date.

Each grant will provide significant support over two years to teams working on cure-focused research at the California Institute of Technology; Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland, OH; Ghent University Hospital in Ghent, Belgium; and Massachusetts General Hospital in Boston.

See below for full descriptions of the new research projects 

One project is led by Dr. David Baltimore, a Nobel laureate and professor at Caltech who is directing his attention and efforts toward curing HIV. Dr. Baltimore was awarded the 1975 Nobel Prize for Physiology or Medicine for his discovery of reverse transcriptase, which enabled the development of reverse transcriptase inhibitors—drugs that form the cornerstone of HIV treatment today. His amfAR-funded project seeks to address an enduring controversy in the cure field: whether, and how, HIV continues to replicate even when a patient has an undetectable viral load. The answer to this question will fundamentally determine which processes and parts of the anatomy must be targeted to cure HIV infection.

“There have been many new findings as interest in HIV cure research has grown during the past few years, and amfAR is uniquely poised to help explain and extend those findings and apply them to curing HIV,” said amfAR Vice President and Director of Research Rowena Johnston, who also oversees amfAR’s cure research consortium. “We’re excited to see what each of our four teams can do when our funding meets their considerable talents.”

The three other teams will investigate a newly discovered type of cell that may constitute a prime reservoir for HIV persistence; the mechanisms through which such persistence is established and may be perturbed; and a cutting-edge methodology for measuring the size of this reservoir, a tool that could help scientists assess the impact of interventions aimed at reducing its size and thus curing HIV.

“Several of these projects wouldn’t have been possible even a year ago,” Johnston said. “We are witnessing an exponential growth in our understanding of the obstacles standing in the way of a cure. amfAR has the flexibility to respond in real time to the emerging opportunities in the field of cure research.”

About 60 percent of amfAR’s research grants are dedicated to cure-specific projects around the world.

“At a time when medical research funding, like many other types of funding, is under attack, amfAR is pleased to be able to fund this important work,” said amfAR CEO Kevin Robert Frost. “We’re proud to be at the forefront of the cure research field and strongly believe that, given the right resources and the political will, we can and will find a cure for HIV/AIDS.” 

About amfAR 

amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research, is one of the world’s leading nonprofit organizations dedicated to the support of AIDS research, HIV prevention, treatment education, and the advocacy of sound AIDS-related public policy. Since 1985, amfAR has invested nearly $366 million in its programs and has awarded grants to more than 2,000 research teams worldwide.


Full list of amfAR research grants announced February 8, 2012: 

David Baltimore, Ph.D. 
California Institute of Technology, Pasadena, CA 
Ongoing replication in anatomical niches in the face of ART: The great majority of virus in an infected person resides within tissues, not blood, and yet far less is known about how viral transmission, as well as persistence, occurs in these areas. Dr. Baltimore hypothesizes that in tissues with a dense concentration of cells that are susceptible to HIV infection, virus may be passed directly from an infected cell to an uninfected target cell without traversing the space between cells. Under these circumstances, antiretroviral therapy (ART) may be less efficient at preventing replication of the virus. His studies will contribute to our understanding of the potential and limitations of ART to clear persistent reservoirs of virus and further our understanding of barriers to a cure for HIV.

Jonathan Karn, Ph.D. 
Case Western Reserve University, Cleveland, OH 
Identification of cellular factors required to maintain HIV latency: When HIV infects a cell, it usually leads to production of new viruses. In a very small number of cases, however, the virus inserts itself into the human DNA and becomes dormant, or latent, resulting in the inability of antiretroviral therapy to target the virus. Dr. Karn will scan libraries of short stretches of host cell RNA to determine which proteins and other factors in cells are required to establish latent infection. Understanding these factors, and interactions between them, will point towards ways in which latent infection can be prevented or reversed, and thus bring us closer to a cure for HIV.

Mathias Lichterfeld, M.D., Ph.D. 
Massachusetts General Hospital, Boston, MA 
T memory stem cells: a new cellular reservoir for HIV-1: CD4 T cells are the major source of virus that persists despite antiretroviral therapy (ART). Several subsets of these cells have been identified as particularly important reservoirs. Dr. Lichterfeld and colleagues will investigate whether a newly discovered subset of CD4 T cells that have properties similar to stem cells might serve as the main site of viral persistence as well as a source of virus that re-emerges when ART is stopped. They will also test whether pharmaceutical agents that target these cells specifically might serve as a novel therapy to purge these cellular reservoirs of virus and thus form part of a strategy to cure HIV infection.

Linos Vanderkerckhove, M.D., Ph.D. 
Ghent University Hospital, Ghent, Belgium 
Size of the HIV reservoir and ongoing replication in defined patient cohorts: As researchers pursue the goal of curing HIV, they will require new tools that can measure decreases in levels of virus that are already at the limit of detection with the most sensitive tests available today. Dr. Vanderkerckhove plans to develop a new test that combines and optimizes several experimental lab assays. His test will simultaneously indicate the size of the latent reservoir of HIV, the extent to which virus continues to replicate while the patient is on antiretroviral therapy, and the precise stretches of DNA into which the virus inserts itself. He will then test blood and tissues from patients on or off antiretroviral therapy, to compare the behavior of the reservoir under these different conditions.