After a yearlong vetting process, Gilead Sciences, the company behind many of the HIV antiretrovirals used today, has announced the names of 12 recipients of its HIV cure grants program. The pharma company's cure grant fund, totaling over $22 million, will help support research projects over the next three years.
The 12 new HIV cure research projects mainly consist of grassroots organizations from around the world that needed additional financial support to continue their activities. And, according to Gilead, finding them was not easy.
“We wanted to see how we can potentially support our external partners to advance the entire field of HIV cure,” says Korab Zuka, Gilead's head of corporate grants. “So we decided to issue a funding opportunity announcement that essentially announced the four pillars of what we were looking to fund: Conversational research, animal studies, institutional support, and the fourth being supporting community organizations, because [Gilead] truly believes getting community feedback is really important around HIV cure research.”
In addition to the the traditional research and science institutions — including Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine, Massachusetts General Hospital, the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center, and the National Cancer Institute — there were a few surprising and promising community-based grantees on the recipient list: AIDS Foundation of Chicago, Project Inform, and My Brother’s Keeper. (See the full list of recipients below.)
In order to be considered, organizations had to submit a letter of interest, which consisted of a two-page summary describing what they hoped to do in their research. Gilead then invited 30 organizations to submit full proposals that the committee then picked from for the top 12 projects.
“There is certainly an ethical conversation that needs to happen, so we wanted the community to engage in that perspective.” Zuka said.
When asked which of the proposals stuck out to him personally, he replied, “My Brother’s Keeper." Their proposal is around HIV cure research among the African-American gay and bi men and other affected communities in the Deep South.
"Historically, what Black MSM have experienced, and also the African-American community more broadly, is oversight or [just plain lack of consideration] in the healthcare system," says Zuka. "We really thought it was important for us to integrate perspectives and not just look at the smaller groups.”
The HIV cure grants program is one of many funding programs that Gilead runs. Any given year, Gilead assesses about 4,000 proposals from various organizations that are grassroots-based, many of which do individual outreach in a an effective way, which larger organizations could certainly learn from.
“Feedback from the affected communities benefiting from these initiatives is critical,” adds Romas Geleziunas, Gilead's senior director of biology. “Obviously we need to know the communities’ being targeted perspective to know we’re doing the right things: that the therapies are reasonable, understood, and that we understand together the risks. It’s a great dialogue. It’s a fundamental dialogue for us.”
Geleziunas has worked in HIV research for nearly 30 years, and while there won't be an HIV cure overnight, he and his team are more optimistic than ever.
"We have some interesting data, let’s put it that way,” Geleziunas says. “I think that some of the studies we have decided to fund is going to tell us whether we’re on the right path. Data and efficacy from funding these initiatives will take several years to determine what’s worth continuing, and what we should drop. That’s a big point to reach. If you’re absolutely certain that a particular class of therapeutic isn’t worth pursuing, you can basically redirect those resources to other things. So, killing projects is just as important as finding new ones. It’s what we do — I’ve been working in HIV for 30 years this year. I dedicated my entire life to this cause so I feel a great level of responsibility and I really hope we can get rid of this virus once and for all. Hopefully the next generation of scientists will have to worry about other kinds of diseases.”
The full list of recipients (listed, in order, by principal investigator, Institution, and project names):
● Galit Alter, Ph.D. at Massachusetts General Hospital for “Development of a Novel Class of Broadly Functional Antibodies (bFAbs) That Can Kill the Viral Reservoir Within Lymphoid Sanctuaries.”
● Lawrence Corey, M.D. of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center for “Adoptive Transfer of Genetically Protected and Genetically Modified Defined Populations of CAR T Cells as a Modality to Achieve HIV-1 Cure.”
● George N. Pavlakis, M.D., Ph.D., Foundation for the National Institutes of Health, National Cancer Institute, Center for Cancer Research, for “Efficacy of Heterodimeric IL-15 Treatment Regimens in Reducing SIV Reservoir.”
● Robert Siliciano, M.D., Ph.D., Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine for “Measuring the Latent Reservoir for HIV.”
● Alexandra Trkola, Ph.D., University of Zurich, Institute of Medical Virology for “Seek, Uncover and Eliminate: Eliciting Antiviral and Infected Cell-Directed Activities Towards a Cure of HIV-1.”
● Olivier Schwartz, Ph.D., of the Institut Pasteur, for “Novel Methods to Visualize and Eliminate the HIV-1 Reservoir.”
● Ole Schmeltz Sogaard, M.D., Ph.D., Aarhus University Hospital, “Combining a TLR9 Agonist With Broadly Neutralizing Antibodies for Viral Reservoir Reduction and Immunological Control of HIV Infection: A Randomized, Placebo-Controlled Trial.”
● Thumbi Ndung’u, Ph.D., University of KwaZulu-Natal for “The Fresh Study: Females Rising Through Education, Support and Health (‘FRESH’) Acute HIV Infection Cohort.”
● Michael M. Lederman, M.D., Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine, “Reservoir Reduction with Interleukin-2 and Transcriptional Activation.”
● Amy Johnson, Ph.D., AIDS Foundation of Chicago, “Chicago Unites in Research to End HIV (CURE HIV).”
● David Evans, Project Inform, “Assuring Successful Community Participation in HIV Cure Research.”
● DeMarc Hickson, Ph.D., My Brother’s Keeper, Inc., “HIV Cure Research Perception Among HIV-Infected African-American MSM, and Affected Communities in the Deep American South: A Multi-Level Mixed Methods Perspective.”