URMC wins $18 million grant for HIV efforts

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Rochester researchers’ efforts in controlling the HIV/AIDS global epidemic have received an $18 million boost.

The University of Rochester Medical Center’s infectious diseases division has won a seven-year grant from the National Institutes of Health. The funds will allow URMC’s unit to keep conducting vaccine and treatment trials and connecting with communities affected by the disease. 

The effort is led by Michael Keefer M.D., professor in the Department of Medicine and interim chief of URMC’s infectious diseases division, Stephen Dewhurst, chair of the Department of Microbiology and Immunology, and program director Catherine Bunce. 

Michael Keefer

“While creating a preventive HIV vaccine has been complex, our work has established approaches that are used for HIV and also contributed to the unprecedented speed at which coronavirus vaccines are being developed,” Keefer says.

For instance, two of the active COVID-19 efficacy trials, employ an approach from HIV research where vaccines using adenoviruses were used as carriers of HIV proteins. (Adenoviruses are common viruses that cause a range of illnesses.)

The AstraZeneca COVID-19 vaccine candidate, co-invented with the University of Oxford, uses a replication-deficient chimpanzee viral vector based on a weakened version of a common cold virus (adenovirus). It causes infections in chimps and contains the genetic material of the COVID-19 virus spike protein. Vaccination produces the surface spike protein and enables the immune system to attack the coronavirus.

The NIH award will also let Rochester researchers study COVID-19 and other high-priority infectious diseases. In the last six months, the team pivoted to study coronavirus vaccines and treatments.

On the HIV front, with the new grant, the team expects to:

■ coordinate and execute HIV/AIDS vaccine and treatment trials with participants from diverse populations;

■ engage and educate local communities on clinical research and participation;

■ train the next generation of researchers in the field;

■ advance HIV/AIDS research;

■ support clinical trials by providing resources such as data and quality management; and

■ respond quickly to emerging infectious diseases that require national attention and coordination.

The infectious diseases division received its first grant in 1987 and became a part of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases HIV/AIDS Clinical Research Networks. 

The federal grant further “cements Rochester’s legacy of extraordinary commitment to controlling the HIV pandemic,” Keefer says. 

Smriti Jacob is Rochester Beacon managing editor.

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