As we observe the 29th World AIDS Day, people infected with HIV are living longer than ever and progress continues in the fight against the disease that was a death sentence decades ago.
Some of those positive developments resulted from research conducted at UCLA, where in 1981 doctors first sounded the alarm that a strange, new disease was sickening and killing people. Research at UCLA into models enabling tests for new drug therapies, the use of antiviral drugs to reduce mother-to-child HIV transmission, along with other developments, have contributed to a positive diagnosis for HIV no longer meaning an automatic death sentence, as it was in the 1980s.
Yet even with decades of advances from scientists around the world, AIDS still kills more than 1 million people each year and there is no cure.
That’s why the work of the HIV Extinction Project at UCLA remains vital. Started in December 2014, the project supports interdisciplinary teams in their work to identify and test novel approaches for curing people infected with HIV who have latent reservoirs of the virus.
It’s the single-largest project of its type at the UCLA AIDS Institute, said Kathie Ferbas, scientific administrator at the UCLA AIDS Institute.
“These are all innovative, high-risk, high-pay–off projects for which insufficient proof of principle data exist and that type of data would typically be necessary for a larger funding application from the National Institutes of Health, for example,” Ferbas said.
Masakazu Kamata, adjunct assistant professor of medicine in the division of hematology/oncology at the David Geffen School of Medicine at UCLA, is leading a project to develop a delivery system that would allow much greater distribution of these therapies throughout the body, including to areas typically hard to reach such as the brain.
“This novel system has the potential to allow delivery of their cargo in ways not possible with current delivery platforms,” Ferbas said.
Another project led by Ren Sun, professor of molecular and medical pharmacology at the Geffen School, seeks to identify unknown genes that already exist in our body to cause viruses hiding in tissues to multiply. This is referred to as the “latent reservoir” of the virus and it must be flushed out to develop a cure.
“A failure to flush out the entire viral population minimizes the potential of cure research,” Ferbas said.
Started with support from the Glenn D. Taylor Trust, the HIV Extinction Project is currently funded by the McCarthy Family Foundation, one of earliest supporters of AIDS research at UCLA.
The Extinction Project is bringing together more than 20 UCLA scientists and representatives from biotechnology firms who are experts in stem cell and antiretroviral therapies, immune function, genetics, vaccines and new technologies. The individual research projects are supported in phases, with money being allocated as milestones are met, and projects are analyzed and researchers are provided with valuable advice via interim meetings.
“This type of approach allows us the flexibility to pursue projects where strong data are generated in support of the original hypothesis and to move quickly away from those that are less promising,” said Irvin Chen, director of the UCLA AIDS Institute. “This is not possible in a traditional grant funding mechanism and, we believe, greatly increases the odds of success.”