A University researcher is a few years away from potentially improving treatments and vaccines for HIV.
The National Institutes of Health awarded associate professor Pam Skinner and her collaborator a five-year, $3.7 million grant for HIV research.
Skinner, along with University of Colorado Denver professor Elizabeth Connick, will spend the next five years researching why virus-killing cells can’t find and kill HIV-infected cells.
Skinner said their research could possibly lead to improved drugs for HIV treatment, vaccines or “ideally, a cure. But that’s a high-in-the-sky dream.”
Skinner and Connick discovered that HIV-infected cells are mostly located in B cell follicles within lymph nodes.
Most of the HIV-infected cells are located in an area where virus-specific CD8 T cells — which kill HIV cells — are not located.
They will be working to understand what prevents the virus-killing cells from reaching the HIV-infected cells and why HIV replicates mostly in B cell follicles.
If they are successful, Skinner said, they would next try to engineer virus-killing cells “to migrate into follicles to see if they can go in there and clear that reservoir of viruses that concentrate in that specific spot.”
Skinner and Connick reported their findings in 2007, but Connick said research funding is a “very political process.”
She said that other previously accepted ideas have been tried and failed, which has led to the consideration of their theory and now receiving the grant.
Since the research is “entirely dependent on tax dollars,” Skinner said NIH grants are harder to come by because of the unstable economy.
Scientists like Skinner who are researching cures to diseases are struggling to do so because their funding depends on tax dollars, Skinner said.
NIH funding is tied to the national discussion on government spending and the fiscal cliff. If Congress can’t avoid across the board spending cuts during negotiations by March, Skinner said, their research budget could be reduced by 10 percent.
‘A wealth of HIV research’
Skinner is one of many researchers at the University working in the HIV field.
“There is just a wealth of HIV research going on here at the University of Minnesota,” Skinner said.
Everything from the design of effective HIV drugs and vaccines to prevention and patient treatment is happening on the University campus, she said.
Skinner has worked in HIV research for more than a decade, and Connick has been working as an HIV physician and researcher since the 1980s.
“It was a very scary time,” Connick said. “There were a lot of fears and a lot of social stigma associated with the disease, and there were also tremendous challenges because nobody understood how the disease worked.”
In 1987, the University began its Minnesota AIDS Clinical Trials Unit to research treatments for HIV/AIDS but closed in 2006 after a lack of grant funds.
In recent years, University researchers discovered a compound that can prevent transmission of SIV — the primate version of HIV — when applied vaginally.
Connick said working directly with patients while also doing research has proved beneficial.
“My patients have given me insights about research, and my research has given me insights about patients that I wouldn’t have had if I just did one and not the other,” she said.
Several of Connick’s patients also donated their lymph nodes to the study.
“Without them, we would have never been able to make these discoveries,” Skinner said.
Although the field of HIV research has come a long way, Connick said there is still more work to be done.
“In the absence of a protective vaccine or a cure, HIV is going to continue to wreak havoc on the planet for years to come,” Connick said.
“I’m hopeful that someday this research will lead to a cure for HIV,” Skinner said. “That’s our goal. That’s why we do this.”