Tulane primate center receives grant to study HIV in monkeys

Robert Marchini, Staff Reporter

With the help of a new grant to study HIV in monkeys, Tulane National Primate Research Center wants to “kick and kill” HIV for good. 

The grant, awarded by the National Institutes of Health, is for approximately $836,000 per year for five years. Dr. Huanbin Xu, the lead investigator on the project, said the goal of this project is to develop a way to eradicate cells that harbor a latent HIV infection.

Xu said that modern HIV treatment, called combination antiretroviral therapy, only prevents HIV from replicating. It cannot eliminate the latent HIV in these infected cell reservoirs. This is why patients infected with HIV must continue to use cART for their entire lives: if treatment is discontinued, these latent reservoirs will reactivate and lead to an active HIV infection. A core focus of current research into ways to cure HIV is eliminating these reservoirs.

Xu has proposed a strategy he calls “kick and kill,” which is what the grant will study using monkeys infected with a primate analogue of HIV. Xu says he’s using a “comprehensive therapeutic approach” in this preclinical trial research: if effective, he believes the therapy could quickly be translated to human infections.

“This is amazing therapeutic strategy in a cure for AIDS as preclinical trial and translational medicine research,” Xu said. “We hope to get breakthrough in AIDS therapy.”

The goal of this strategy is to activate the latent infection, so that it can be targeted with other therapies and eliminated. The first portion of this study will use treatments to train the individual’s immune system to attack HIV, in addition to the standard cART. To increase the efficacy of this stage, Xu and his team will use gene editing therapies to tailor their treatments to each individual.

In the second stage, the study will apply antibody mediated targeted cell killing to eliminate remaining latently infected cells. In this procedure, a set of drugs known as antibody drug conjugates are used to specifically target the infected cells while leaving healthy cells unharmed.

ADCs were originally developed to treat cancer as a more targeted alternative to the widespread approach taken by chemotherapy, and are a combination of an antibody and a linked drug “payload.” The antibody recognizes the infected cells and injects the drug, killing the cell.

Tulane National Primate Research Center is one of only seven centers nationally, and conducts or facilitates research involving primates, working with other universities and government grants. The center focuses on diseases including HIV, leukemia, Lyme disease, malaria, tuberculosis and West Nile virus.

“I am seeking for effective therapy for AIDS, in spite of long way to go, but it is good start and deserve to make effort,” Xu said.