Two groups of scientists working to cure HIV by eliminating the reservoir of latent virus received a total of $1.6 million in grants from amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research.

Both projects were launched in 2017, according to an amfAR press release, and this latest round of investment grants constitutes the third and final phase of the projects’ research funding from amfAR. It is part of amfAR’s $100 million Countdown to a Cure for AIDS initiative to develop a cure by 2020.

One of the biggest hindrances to a cure remains the HIV reservoir, a group of cells that contain dormant virus. Current antiretrovirals cannot reach inactive virus, so finding a way to eliminate the reservoir is a pivotal part of an HIV cure.

The amfAR-funded researchers tackle this challenge through two methods.

At Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore, Hui Zhang, PhD, an expert in mass spectrometry, uses the protein “fingerprinting” technique to scan the surfaces of cells for proteins that can hopefully differentiate a latently infected cell from an uninfected cell. She has found 17 possible proteins. So far, scientists have had a hard time pinpointing the HIV reservoir. For the next phase of her research, Zhang will determine whether these killing cells exhibiting these proteins will eliminate the reservoir. She’ll be working with Johns Hopkins colleague and HIV scientist Weiming Yang, PhD.

The second group of researchers—Keith Jerome, MD, PhD, and bioengineer Kim Woodrow, MS, PhD—work out of the University of Washington in Seattle. They are trying to identify a latency-reversing agent (LRA) that can shock the reservoir out of dormancy so it can be killed. The most LRAs so far have been ingenols, but these LRAs have toxic side effects and cause the reservoir to expand. To reduce toxicity, the researchers are looking to nanoparticles to deliver LRAs—including an ingenol—to specific cells. They’ve seen success in mouse models; in their next phase of research, they’ll test the nanoparticles in a preclinical study.

“These four-year investment grants have enabled us to support some remarkable collaborative research that needs more than just a year or two to show meaningful results,” said Rowena Johnston, PhD, amfAR’s vice president and director of research, in the press release. “If these researchers manage to accomplish what they’ve set out to do, we will have overcome two of the biggest obstacles standing in the way of a cure for HIV.”

In related news, Johnston recently took part in a panel discussion about female researchers. Watch a video of the event and read more at “Why Women Are a Vital Part of HIV Cure Research.”