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BYU Joins Worldwide Research Fight Against HIV/AIDS

BYU's Dr. Gregory Burton is part of the BELIEVE grant team, researching ways to treat HIV and AIDS.
Photo by Jaren Wilkey/BYU

BYU is teaming up with George Washington University and other institutions around the world to fight HIV/AIDS. George Washington University received a $28 million Martin Delaney Collaboratory Grant to create a new HIV cure strategy.

The BELIEVE grant, or “Bench to Bed Enhanced Lymphocyte Infusions to Engineer Viral Eradication,” was awarded to the Washington, D.C.-based university by the National Institutes of Health (NIH). It will last five years and will focus on an innovative cell therapy approach that concentrates on making individuals’ immune systems work better by eliminating HIV reservoirs.

“Our goals are to look at a very specific reservoir called the follicular dendritic cell, or FDC for short, to determine whether or not the therapy that is being designed and implemented is capable of attacking this reservoir,” said BYU chemistry and biochemistry professor Dr. Gregory F. Burton, the researcher in the grant representing BYU. “In other words, does it make a difference?”

For a long time, scientists have researched ways to create more successful HIV drugs and other approaches for therapeutics or treatments. The researchers in this collaboration hope to alleviate or destroy the virus through immunotherapy.

“Part of this grant is looking at those reservoir sites and determining whether the therapeutics that are being designed are able to target those sites and decrease the amount of virus that’s there,” Burton said.

One huge problem with fighting HIV is the ability of HIV to hide in reservoirs, or sanctuaries, throughout the body, including within tissues in secondary lymphoid organs such as tonsils, lymph nodes, and the spleen.

“We know where the sanctuaries are; what we need to know is how to treat them effectively,” Burton said.

Burton and other researchers will partner with two companies in trying to discover novel strategies for treating HIV/AIDS. One partner is the Altor Bioscience Corporation, whose cancer drug candidate ALT-803 has been found to enhance the ability of the immune system to kill HIV-infected T-lymphocytes, or T-cells.

“[ALT 803] is an enhanced cytokine and a cytokine is a signal that cells make to communicate.” Burton said. “We think it will be very helpful in assisting the immune system to attack and target HIV.”

The researchers will also partner with Torque, a biomedical engineering company that found a way to attach drugs to cytotoxic T-cells, lymphocytes that can kill virus-infected cells.

Burton will collaborate specifically with Elizabeth Connick, M.D. Connick is the head of infectious diseases at the University of Arizona, another of the institutions involved with BELIEVE. Connick will look at the T-cell and Burton will study the FDC.

“Together, we’ll form an important aspect of the studies: to know whether [these] two particular cells are being impacted by the treatments devised.”

Other institutions from all over the world will conduct research for BELIEVE, including Harvard University, Johns Hopkins University, Simon Fraser University in Canada, the University of São Paulo in Brazil, and the Children’s National Health System.

“Each person that is a part of the grant has their own expertise in HIV, and so it’s a wonderful opportunity to work with people who are the tops in their field throughout the country,” Burton said.

One graduate student and two undergraduate students will help Burton with his research for BELIEVE. While performing research with knowledgeable colleagues is one significant aspect of this grant, teaching students is also significant.

“All of them will benefit from the research because we discuss it, and they have a chance to participate in it,” Burton said. “It’s a great opportunity. It’s a perfect example of when research ends up being both a teaching tool as well as discovering new knowledge. That’s the beauty of this grant.”