The University of Rochester was named a Center for AIDS Research (CFAR) by the National Institutes of Health, a designation that infuses $7.5 million into HIV/AIDS work across the University and places it amongst the best in the nation for research to improve the prevention, detection and treatment of the disease.
The new award spans five years and will be used to form unique collaborations, such as between the Department of Neurology at the Medical Center and the Institute of Optics on the River Campus, with the goal of delivering high-impact discoveries. Even more importantly, it will support the career development of the next generation of HIV/AIDS researchers – young investigators who will transform today’s discoveries into new treatments or practices – through mentoring programs and pilot grants.
Stephen Dewhurst, Ph.D., vice dean for research at the University of Rochester School of Medicine and Dentistry and head of the UR CFAR says, “This award recognizes that the AIDS research conducted here is truly outstanding, thanks to the hard work, dedication and innovative thinking of our faculty and staff. It will make the research we’re doing now even better and will allow us to take our work in many new directions, which is very exciting.”
Only institutions with a certain level of existing grant funding are able to compete for a CFAR designation. With $15.3 million in HIV/AIDS funding in 2011 and a competitive application that emphasized Rochester’s research strengths, including the disease’s influence on the brain, HIV and aging and RNA biology, the University is now one of 18 CFARs across the country.
“To have a Center for AIDS Research here is quite exceptional and confirms the University’s place in the big leagues of AIDS research,” said Michael C. Keefer, M.D., director of the University's NIH-supported HIV Vaccine Trials Unit and co-leader of the CFAR. “We’ve conducted AIDS vaccine research at the University for more than 20 years and this gives us the opportunity to reach out more broadly across the institution than ever before in search of new ideas, talent and inspiration.”
The CFAR will include two major working groups. The first, led by Harris “Handy” A. Gelbard, M.D., Ph.D., director of the Center for Neural Development and Disease and an international expert on HIV-associated dementia, will focus on the virus’ affect on the brain and what it means for aging patients.
Thanks to great strides in treatment, people with HIV are living longer than ever before: More than 45 percent of patients who receive care at URMC’s AIDS Center are 50 years of age or older and more than 15 percent are 60 or older. According to Gelbard, this is a new phenomenon, and little is known about how HIV interacts with other conditions associated with aging, such as age-related cognitive decline. Gelbard says the group will take advantage of the Medical Center’s expertise in neurology clinical trials and novel imaging tools and techniques developed by the Institute of Optics to investigate AIDS and the aging brain.
David H. Mathews, M.D., Ph.D.,associate professor in the Department of Biochemistry and Biophysics, will head the second working group focused on HIV RNA biology. The genetic material of HIV (its genome) is composed of RNA or ribonucleic acid, which is used to make DNA that then inserts itself in the chromosome of the host cell. Better understanding the structure and function of HIV RNA and how it replicates will give researchers the opportunity to target different aspects of the virus that haven’t been targeted in the past. Such information could be used to develop new drug treatments and to facilitate the eradication of latent reservoirs of virus infection.
“We have a concentration of the world’s leading RNA investigators here at the University,” said Mathews, associate director of URMC’s Center for RNA Biology. “Our goal is to encourage RNA scientists, who work in many different departments, to apply their expertise to the world of HIV research. While some groundwork has been done, there are lots of opportunities to delve deeper into this important area.”
To continually fuel both working groups with new ideas and partnerships, Dewhurst’s team will use a scientific “speed dating” approach. Much like speed-dating events where singles try to meet others with similar interests, scientists from different departments will pair up for a few minutes to talk about their research, then move on to talk with the next scientist in the group, identifying complementary areas of interest. Dewhurst believes the approach, first used at UR by the Departments of Biomedical Engineering and Optics, is a great way to get a lot of creative people together and to spur new thinking.
“People want to do the same thing they’ve always done because it is easy, while doing something new is really hard,” said Gelbard. “Our CFAR won’t involve doing the same old same old when it comes to AIDS research.”
Other major players in the UR CFAR include James McMahon, Ph.D., associate professor in the School of Nursing, who will jointly direct the CFAR’s clinical and translational research activities. In addition, Sanjay B. Maggirwar, Ph.D., associate professor of Microbiology and Immunology, will lead the CFAR’s basic research activities, and Hulin Wu, Ph.D., director of the Center for Integrative Bioinformatics and Experimental Mathematics (CIBEM), will oversee the CFAR’s biostatistics, bioinformatics and biomathematical modeling research activities and support services. Finally, Jennifer Lynch, Senior Associate, will serve as the CFAR’s main administrator and the glue that holds the program together, says Dewhurst.
Collectively, the team will ensure that the CFAR supports the entire spectrum of HIV/AIDS research at UR, while also nurturing the careers of young investigators through mentoring support, networking and pilot grant awards.