A team of researchers at Aarhus University who received major international accolades at last summer’s International Aids Conference have been given a $1.5 million grant from the American Foundation for Aids Research (amfAR) to further develop its innovative ‘shock and kill’ approach to expose HIV cells.
The Aarhus team, led by Ole Schmeltz Søgaard, will join forces with researchers from Rockefeller University in New York and the University of Cologne in Germany to work on a drug combination that can force HIV into the bloodstream, where it can then be taken on by the body’s immune system.
When Søgaard presented initial results of his method, also called ‘kick and kill’, at the International Aids Conference in Melbourne last July, it was hailed as a major breakthrough.
“Ole’s data has for the first time shown we are able to shock the virus out of its hiding place. I think actually it is the single most important advance of this meeting and it's going to have a huge impact in future,” Steven Deeks, a professor of medicine and the University of California, said at the conference according to the Sydney Morning Herald.
Søgaard told the Danish science news site Videnskab that the new American funding is “a very important step in the direction of finding a cure against HIV”.
“I am very optimistic and believe that we will see an effect,” he said.
Søgaard’s team in Aarhus carried out a study on six HIV-positive patients and found that for five of them, being treated with the cancer drug romidepsin led to the HIV virus increasing to a measurable level. By activating the HIV cells, it set the stage for the patients’ T-cells to attack the virus.
While the patients in the study did not destroy the virus, the Aarhus team will now try to combine the ‘kick and kill’ technique with an experimental HIV vaccine to try to generate an immune response potent enough to wipe out the virus.
“[The previous study] lacked a killing mechanism that could kill the newly-discovered HIV-infected cells. The new thing here is that we will combine romidepsin with another medicine that contains a very effective antibody from a patient that has been extraordinarily good at fighting immune cells infected with the HIV virus,” Søgaard told Videnskab.
Parts of the cells of this ‘super patient’ will be cloned and reproduced as part of the new amfAR-funded project.
A total of 30 patients from Aarhus, Cologne and New York will participate in a two-year clinical study and Søgaard is optimistic.
“I believe that the number of HIV-infected cells will decrease in our trial patients,” he said.
The grant to the Aarhus team is part of what amfAR said was the biggest grant expansion in the foundation’s 30-year history.
In addition to funding Søgaard’s project, the foundation’s $100 million investment strategy includes the establishment of a new institute dedicated to finding a cure for Aids by 2020.
"Our investment strategy is designed to ensure that we can support every scientific effort across the spectrum of biomedical research that has the potential to overcome one or more of the key scientific barriers to a cure for HIV," amfAR’s director of research, Rowena Johnston, said in a press release.