It is an innovative idea that could one day make it possible to cut and disable HIV within the genomes of infected people, thus offering the possibility of a cure for the virus that causes AIDS.
Dr. Keith Jerome, associate professor of laboratory medicine at the University of Washington and an assistant member of the Vaccine and Infectious Disease Institute at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, submitted his idea to the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation Grand Challenges Explorations initiative, which promotes innovation in global health.
In an announcement made today by the Gates Foundation, Jerome’s research project will receive $100,000 for one year as one of 104 grants provided by the Gates Foundation for the first funding round of Grand Challenges Explorations. The initiative helps scientists around the world explore bold, new solutions for health challenges in developing countries. The grants were provided to all levels of scientists in 22 countries and five continents. Successful projects will be eligible to apply for follow-up funding.
“This is excellent news and we are extremely appreciative to receive this funding from the Gates Foundation,” Jerome said. “If this approach proves successful in the laboratory, it might one day be possible to cut and disable the HIV within the genomes of infected people, which could conceivably lead to a cure of HIV infection.”
To receive funding, Jerome showed in a two-page application how his idea falls outside current scientific paradigms and could lead to significant advances in global health if successful.
“The unique feature of HIV that makes it such a difficult enemy is that the virus inserts itself directly into the genes of its human host,” Jerome explained. “From there, the virus can release billions of copies of itself into the blood, and cause sickness or death. Our current treatments can attack the copies of virus in the blood, but do nothing to deal with the virus that is inserted directly into a person’s genome. We hope to change that using a new class of proteins called homing endonucleases.”
Jerome said these proteins very specifically seek out DNA strands that have a particular sequence, and then cut them. He and his research team will work to develop and test homing endonucleases that can recognize and cut DNA sequences unique to HIV, thus disabling the virus from making any more copies of itself.
In addition to Jerome, four other UW researchers received funding of $100,000 each from the Gates Foundation Grand Challenges Explorations grant:
• Dr. Dmitry Shayakhmetov, UW assistant professor of medical genetics, will lead a research project titled Interruption of Latency and in Vivo Adenovirus Mediated Elimination of Macrophages Infected with M. tuberculosis, which has the potential to identify new molecular targets and therapeutic approaches to counteract latent tuberculosis infection and more effectively treat progressive TB.
• Dr. James Kublin, associate professor in the UW School of Public Health and Community Medicine and director of the HIV Vaccine Trials Network based at the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, is leading a project entitled P. falciparum Sexual Reproduction in Vitro and High-Volume Infectious Sporozoite Production for Whole Cell Vaccines that proposes a new, systematic approach for making large numbers of infective malaria parasites. Robotic machinery handling thousands of chemicals will be used to produce results that will enable Kublin and his team to reproduce in the lab what happens in the mosquito.
• In a project entitled VACAS: Vaccinating Adjuvant Core Antigen Shell Nanoparticles, Dr. François Baneyx, UW professor of chemical engineering and adjunct professor of bioengineering, will rely on biomimetic, or bionic, approaches to develop a new type of vaccine that will provide better protection against malaria, tuberculosis and other infectious diseases.
• Dr. Pradipsinh Rathod, UW professor of chemistry, is leading a project entitled Strategies to Disable Hypermutagenesis in Malaria Parasites, which will target components of the malaria genome and develop partner drugs that will disable hypermutagenesis, thus giving traditional drugs and vaccines a fighting chance against parasites.
“I congratulate each individual who took the initiative to share their idea with us to help fight the world’s most serious diseases,” said Dr. Tachi Yamada, president of the Gates Foundation’s Global Health Program. “The number of creative approaches we received exceeded our highest aspirations. Projects from this initial pool of grants have the potential to transform health in developing countries, and I will be rooting for their success.”
Applications for the second round of Grand Challenges Explorations are being accepted through Nov. 2, and topics for the third round will be announced in early 2009. Grant application instructions, including the list of topic areas in which proposals are currently being accepted, are available at www.gcgh.org/explorations.