School of Medicine Expert Receives Two Innovation Grants in Pursuit of AIDS Cure

Jonathan Karn, PhD, an HIV/AIDS expert from Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, has received two Innovation research grants out of seven allocated in the United States and Canada as part of an international effort to find a scientific basis for a cure of HIV/AIDS by 2020.

The grants are funded in part by by the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR), a leading global organization supporting HIV/AIDS research. They are a component of the organization’s Countdown to a Cure initiative, begun in 2014 and aimed at identifying “a broadly applicable cure for HIV by 2020.”

Karn, who has worked successfully in the field of AIDS research for decades, is Reinberger Professor of Molecular Biology and chairman of the department of molecular biology and microbiology at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, and director of the Case Center for AIDS Research.

The seven grants aim to better understand and ultimately curtail HIV’s ability to remain in the body as a “persistent viral reservoir” (albeit at very low levels) despite the success of antiretroviral therapy (ART). ART, an anti-HIV "cocktail," is the standard treatment for HIV infection, comprising three or more antiretroviral medicines. While ART can reduce HIV to barely perceptible amounts, if treatment stops, the reservoir causes the virus to rapidly resurface. The goal is to shrink the size of, and eventually eliminate the reservoir, which is measured by determining the number of cells lodging the virus.

Karn has previously found that estrogen can significantly reverse viral latency, or the ability of HIV to remain in the body in the resting “reservoir” phase. His first amfAR grant will enable him to see if other hormones have comparable effects.

Under his second grant, Karn will test and compare a new blood-drawing method to already established techniques for accuracy, efficiency, and cost-effectiveness. His new approach reduces the need for continually drawing large volumes of blood during AIDS treatment and monitoring, which is both expensive and physically demanding on patients. The new test could more quickly determine whether a new or existing drug has reduced the size of the HIV reservoir, for example. It will also significantly increase the number of patients who can be tested at one time.

Each of the seven awards is for approximately $200,000 over two years. The other recipients are Celsa Spina, PhD, University of California in San Diego; Andrés Finzi, PhD, Université de Montréal; Maud Mavigner, PhD, and Mirko Paiardini, PhD, both of Emory University; and James Stivers, PhD, Johns Hopkins University.

This research is supported by amfAR grants 109348-59-RGRL and 109347-59-RGRL.

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