Multimillion-Dollar Grant Propels Struggling Lab toward HIV Cure

Posted: May 7, 2014 at 11:30 am, Last Updated: May 8, 2014 at 9:57 am

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By Michele McDonald

A George Mason University researcher has won a $3.3 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) that may lead to a way for curing HIV in the next five years.

It’s an especially sweet moment for Yuntao Wu, a molecular and microbiology professor, because his lab lost funding last year due to federal budget cuts. “We struggled for an entire year and finally the good news came,” says Wu, who works in the School of Systems Biology and the National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases, both in the College of Science (COS).

Mason researcher Yuntao Wu received a $3.3 million grant from National Institutes of Health to support his HIV research. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

Mason researcher Yuntao Wu received a $3.3 million grant from National Institutes of Health to support his HIV research. Photo by Evan Cantwell.

But really, the good news is for people struggling with HIV, which leads to AIDS, because Wu has found a promising strategy to defeat the virus. He’s borrowing an approach from the Greek poet Virgil and using a Trojan Horse to breach the fortress of HIV.

“It has the potential to offer a cure,” Wu says. “We’ll know in four to five years.”

Wu and his lab team take an HIV-like virus, scoop out its insides and insert an HIV-destroying therapeutic. “But on the outside, it looks like an HIV virus,” Wu says. “This Trojan virus then infects the HIV-harboring cell and kills it—stopping it from making and spreading more viruses.”

Wu’s approach is almost as tricky as HIV’s ability to hijack T-cells, which are the body’s defense against disease. The HIV virus hides in T-cells, avoiding recognition and elimination by our immune system. Wu’s strategy is to use the Trojan virus to find and infect the HIV-hiding T-cells, and then force the HIV virus to replicate. The replication of HIV will trigger the release of a therapeutic protein that will eventually lead to the death of HIV and the infected T-cells.

Wu began working on this strategy a decade ago and found success in the test tube. He’s gratified that the approach may be the best way to eliminate the HIV-harboring reservoirs that are one of the most formidable obstacles for a cure to HIV infection. “This is what we’ve imagined—that we could wipe out HIV and offer a cure. Drugs inhibit HIV but don’t offer a cure. You have to use the medicine all the time.”

Mason researcher Yuntao Wu and the

Mason researcher Yuntao Wu with the students who work in his lab.

But lack of funding almost derailed Wu’s innovative research. Wu’s lab lost funding last year when a federal grant expired and wasn’t renewed by the government. His plight appeared in the April edition of Nature magazine, along with many other publications, during the past year.

“Funding is really tight right now,” says Wu, adding he had to cut a technician’s job last year. “My lab has been very productive, but because of the funding cut, we were in danger of closing.”

Vikas Chandhoke, former COS dean and current vice president of the Office of Research and Economic Development, helped Wu’s lab with funding that included a $15,000 bridge fund support plus a $30,000 loan from COS.

A bicycle ride fundraiser—the New York City to Washington, D.C., AIDS ride—had raised some $300,000 from 2008 to 2010. The ride organizer, Marty Rosen, used crowdfunding and raised $20,000 for Wu’s lab last summer. George Mason students, staff and researchers gave money as well. “That really helped us to purchase the essentials to keep the lab running,” Wu says. A small grant from China-based pharmaceutical firm F. Hoffmann-La Roche helped too.

Still these efforts weren’t enough to keep a major lab going for long. “I know some colleagues who closed their labs and left science because they couldn’t get funding,” Wu says. Federal funding used to fund about 30 percent of NIH grant applications, but now has dropped to fund about eight to 10 percent, he says, adding he applied for 14 grants in five months and too many to track for the entire year.

And then the $3.3 million NIH grant came through late last month. “All together, all these efforts really kept us alive until this grant was approved. We are all set for the next five years.”

Mason students are working and learning in Wu’s lab. “All of the test-tube work has been done by my students,” Wu says.

The lab is full of Virginians, or close residents of Virginia. Wu lives in Manassas; doctoral student Mark Spear lives in Warrenton; Taylor Goad is in Berryville; Sarah Persion is in Leesburg; Beatrix Meltzer is from the Netherlands, but now calls Reston home; and Souvonik Adhya lives in Columbia, Md.

Others have come from China to work on the project, including Jia Guo, a research assistant professor, and Fei Yi, a doctoral student, both from Wuhan. Eliane Liang and Joy Deng are both graduate students from China.

Mark Spear, who is legally blind, is graduating this year. He is one of Mason’s best, and most productive doctoral students, Wu says. Spear won this year’s “Outstanding Doctoral Student Award” from the School of Systems Biology.

Write to Michele McDonald at mmcdon15@gmu.edu

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