A group of researchers at the Drexel University College of Medicine (DUCOM) have received $75,000 from the Campbell Foundation to aid their pursuit of a functional cure for HIV. The Campbell Foundation is a nonprofit organization based out of Fort Lauderdale whose mission is to assist in the funding of HIV and AIDS related research.
The team that has received this award is led by Irwin Chaiken, Ph.D. He and his group of researchers are focused primarily on halting the spread of the virus through the patient’s body once they have become infected. This is a technique known as viral suppression. The group is also working on targeting latent infected cells. These are human cells that are infected with HIV, but are not yet expressing the viral proteins. Every HIV virion contains a certain protein (known as Env) on its surface which allows it to infect otherwise healthy human immune cells. Chaiken’s group hopes to synthesize a class of molecules that can attack and disable this surface protein. Such a molecule is classified as a peptide inhibitor.
The inhibitor would be introduced to the virus through a liposomal delivery method. A liposome is a very small membraneous sphere that drugs can be inserted into prior to delivery to the virus. Using a liposome as a vehicle for delivery would allow for better protection of the drug as it enters and makes its way through the body. It is this project specifically for which the Chaiken group is receiving the Campbell Foundation grant money.
These liposomes can also be designed in a way that allows special proteins to be stored on their surface which can recognize and bind to HIV viruses and HIV-infected cells. This makes the liposomal delivery system highly specific and efficient. Instead of just injecting a drug into the body to freely float around, the delivery system could be able to deliver the drugs directly to the problematic cells and viruses.
Oral drugs have already been created to treat the most widespread type of HIV (HIV-1), but these must be taken daily in order to be effective. If the Chaiken group’s research is successful, it could provide a long-acting antiretroviral treatment for those infected with HIV. Depending on the effectiveness of this proposed long-acting treatment, patients may have the option of receiving dosages at less frequent intervals.
Rachna Arora, Ph.D., is the lead researcher for the liposome project. In an interview with The Triangle she explained that the project has been ongoing since the fall of 2014. Working off of various grants until the Campbell grant was secured a year after the application process started, the project was Arora’s personal research focus. She also explained that she is very excited to begin the next stages of the liposome project, which will lead into in vivo testing for several molecules. She explained that the great thing about using a liposome delivery mechanism is that the liposome structure and chemical makeup mirrors that of human cells, making them nontoxic.
This is also true for the inhibitors themselves, according to Adel Ahmed, Ph.D., another researcher in the Chaiken group. In the studies done so far, although they have been in vitro for the most part, the inhibitor molecules have been non-toxic. Ahmed functions as the group’s peptide chemist, and is credited with synthesizing the inhibitors being employed by Arora’s liposome delivery system. He also expressed excitement for the continuation of the project, and to see results from testing in vivo systems.