AmfAR, one of the oldest and largest foundations supporting AIDS research, has awarded $2 million in grants in its latest drive to find a cure by 2020. The grants are part of a $100 million initiative to find the scientific basis for a cure by the end of the decade.
The awards went to David Weitz, a Harvard physicist, and Alexander Zelikin, a Danish bioengineer and polymer chemist. Together, they will work on eradicating the viral reservoir that is considered the principal barrier to curing HIV.
The grants were aimed specifically at recruiting the expertise of scientists working outside the field of HIV in areas that could directly inform efforts to cure HIV.
“Research to find a cure for AIDS has evolved from a process of discovery to a challenge of technology,” said amfAR CEO Kevin Robert Frost. “And recent technological advances have brought with them some exciting opportunities for the cross-pollination of ideas and for adapting cutting-edge technologies to the field of HIV cure research.”
A researcher who will be working with Weitz is an expert in the field of microfluidics, which has already revolutionized a wide array of scientific fields. He has developed a technique that uses fluid mechanics to specifically isolate the most effective killer T cells from those that are less potent.
He proposes to isolate these cells from patient samples, clone them in a petri dish and test whether the re-injection of these killer cells can lead to a functional cure of HIV.
Zelikin is an expert in prodrugs — temporarily inactive drugs that become active only when instructed by a second stimulus — which he plans to use to eliminate the HIV reservoir. The project will design a two-component cocktail. One prodrug will be developed to gently reawaken the latent HIV using a drug that has shown to be effective in patients. The second prodrug will be designed to specifically initiate the killing of virally infected cells. Acting in tandem, the two prodrugs administered together are poised to specifically activate the latent viral reservoir and kill the cells harboring HIV.