The Schools of the Health Sciences at the University of Pittsburgh have announced four grants totaling nearly $11.5 million from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to explore new methods of HIV prevention.
The foundation awarded $5 million over three years in support of a project led by Sharon Achilles, assistant professor of obstetrics, gynecology, and reproductive sciences at the School of Medicine and an investigator at the Magee-Womens Research Institute (MWRI), to examine whether hormonal contraceptive methods for women cause changes in genital tract immune cells — the cells the virus targets for infection; $4.5 million over two years to enable the Options Now project to assess the acceptability and safety of injecting rilpivirine, a long-acting HIV drug, into the muscle of HIV-negative people, with the aim of preventing infection; and $758,000 over fifteen months for a project led by Lisa Cencia Rohan, associate professor at the School of Pharmacy and an MWRI investigator, to assess the feasibility of delivering contraceptives or HIV prevention drugs in thin-film forms.
In addition, the foundation awarded $1 million over three years to a team of researchers from the Center for Vaccine Research (CVR), the Drug Discovery Institute, and the Graduate School of Public Health to develop a novel test that can detect HIV in the earliest stages of the disease. Because HIV tests in use today rely on a few proteins made only by the virus itself, it currently takes months before a person will test positive for HIV. The new test will involve a larger diversity of biomarker targets, thereby increasing its ability to detect new infections and will help public health workers distinguish between recent and established infections. The ability to factor in duration of infection eventually could help physicians better tailor anti-HIV regimens.
"The earlier you know about an infection, the quicker you can treat it," said CVR director Donald S. Burke, dean of the Graduate School of Public Health and a principal investigator on the project. "Immediately starting antiretroviral drugs greatly reduces the chance of the disease progressing to full-blown AIDS and reduces person-to-person transmissibility of the virus. The test will also enable extensive epidemiological studies in developing countries, allowing health agencies to effectively target their precious resources."