A new $35.6 million federal grant will help a research group led by Emory University develop new strategies for fighting HIV by creating a vaccine to prevent it and developing a functional cure for those already infected by the virus. 

The five-year grant from the National Institutes of Health was awarded to the Emory Consortium for Innovative AIDS Research in Nonhuman Primates, which is working to develop advanced vaccines to provide protection from retroviral infection and refine "shock and kill" efforts that work to eliminate the HIV virus in people infected with it. 

The grant will allow researchers to purse several "novel approaches" for curing HIV, according to Eric Hunter (photo right), a co-principal investigator of the grant and a professor at Emory's School of Medicine. 

"We are very fortunate and excited to have such a strong, multidisciplinary team of investigators here at Emory, and around the U.S., to tackle these critical questions in HIV vaccine development and therapy. This award will allow us to combine multiple novel approaches to work to improve the efficacy of preventive vaccines and approaches to a cure for HIV," Hunter said in a prepared statement.

Rama Amara (photo left), the other co-principal investigator of the grant, told the AJC that the grant has two major goals – create a preventative vaccine and develop a functional cure for those already infected with HIV.

"A person infected with HIV can use therapy or drugs — and there are some right now that are really good," he said. "But the major drawback is that the people infected have to be on them for the rest of their life."

Using the grant, investigators aim to develop a cure that can reprogram the immune system so that when individuals are removed from therapy, the virus can still be controlled without any drugs, he said.

Researchers want to fill gaps in current knowledge about the virus and vaccine protections to attack several challenges, including enhancing the body's immune response, activating antiviral T cells where the virus first enters the body, and stimulating the right balance of immune cells and CD4 T cells, which are potential targets for the virus.

"Generating a long-lasting protective antibody response at the site of HIV entry is key to stopping its transmission and is one objective of our new NIH-funded research program to develop new strategies for preventing and curing HIV/AIDS," Amara said in a prepared statement.

Researchers said they will also pursue studies focusing on the "shock and kill" approach in antiviral drug therapy, which forces HIV to come out of hiding from its reservoirs in the body and is a key to killing the virus.

Emory's research consortium includes investigators across the university's expansive efforts combatting HIV, including the Emory School of Medicine, Rollins School of Public Health and Emory Vaccine Center. LGBT Atlanta supports the vaccine center with the annual AIDS Vaccine 200, a two-day bike trek that has raised more than $2.2 million since its inception in 2003. About 100 riders took part in the event last month.

The research group also includes researchers at Georgia Tech and schools in Louisiana, North Carolina and Minnesota.

[photo courtesy Emory's Woodruff Health Sciences Center]