The research geeks at Emory's Hope Clinic have been on the cutting edge of developing an HIV vaccine for years. Now, researchers are asking for help from LGBT Atlanta as they fight a virus that adversely impacts people with HIV.
They are pushing to recruit a third batch of participants for testing in August and a fourth group for sometime this fall. It's part of an ongoing research study to develop a vaccine for cytomegalovirus, a common virus that remains dormant. Until it's not.
Even if you've never heard of CMV, it's a virus that can harm people with HIV and others with weakened immune systems. So the Hope Clinic is reaching out to LGBT Atlanta – a population that faces one of the nation's highest rates of HIV infection – for help enrolling participants.
"CMV is a fairly common opportunistic infection if HIV goes uncontrolled and weakens the immune system," said Mark Mulligan (photo), an Emory professor, AIDS researcher and executive director of the Hope Clinic.
"They can develop serious diseases and it's necessary to treat them with anti-virals. However, we need newer and better ones and that is what this study is about," he added.
Cytomegalovirus is related to the viruses that cause herpes and mononucleosis. Once infected, it remains in your body for life though it stays dormant if you're healthy and most people don't know they have it. The virus is transmitted through body fluids, including blood, urine, saliva, tears and semen.
But for people who are pregnant or have weakened immune systems, cytomegalovirus can cause concern. It has no cure but can be treated with antiviral drugs. The virus can cause serious complications for newborns and in adults, it can cause CMV mononucleosis and intestinal, liver, nervous system and lung complications. For people with HIV, the virus can cause blindness, Mulligan said.
"It stays latent, quiet for as long as the immune system is intact. But if you get HIV and your immune system is weakened, the virus is able to re-emerge and can cause very severe diseases," he added.
The ongoing study at the Hope Clinic looks at the safety of the medicine – MBX-400 – as well as the level of the drug in blood and urine so researchers can figure out the best dosage, he said. It's a potent oral, once-a-day medicine that's a "promising addition to our arsenal to fight CMV," Mulligan said.
"We are more than halfway though our study but we need more volunteers," he said.
The screening process to find study participants is tougher than past HIV vaccine trials the Hope Clinic has conducted. Those efforts attract attention – and big bucks – from LGBT cyclists who pedal 200 miles over two days every year. But not so much for the CMV study.
"It's a tough study to enroll. We are challenged in finding eligible individuals," Mulligan said.
Study participants must be healthy adults between the ages of 18 and 65, are unable to have children or have no sex that could result in conception, non-smokers willing to give up alcohol, caffeine and grapefruit for two weeks, and be able to stop all medications for 25 days.
Study participants are also required to undergo five follow-up visits and an 8-day inpatient stay at Emory University Hospital. But don't worry. Emory's hospitals take good care of the gays.
The upside is that the compensation for people taking part in the CMV study is much higher than the clinic's other studies. It totals $2,025.
'Frankly, we need help'
Mark Broomfield-Ranney, who is gay, said the study compensation will help fund a honeymoon for he and his husband. The couple was married in April. He enrolled in the CMV study after taking part in two other HIV vaccine studies at the Hope Clinic.
"That is going to help pay for my honeymoon," Broomfield-Ranney said.
Taking part in the CMV study was also a way to help others, he said.
"The main reason that I'm involved with these studies is to help other people. This is another way to help, more broadly, our community," Broomfield-Ranney said.
To fit the hospital stay into his schedule, Broomfield-Ranney took vacation time to be away from work. Then he packed up his laptop and plenty of books to occupy his time during the hospital stay.
But it wasn't eight days in the hospital that was tough – Broomfield-Ranney said the food was so good that he gained weight.
"I took lots of books, DVDs, took my computer and I got a lot accomplished. The hardest part for me was having to give up caffeine for the duration of the study," Broomfield-Ranney said.
Mulligan said the Hope Clinic is reaching out to LGBT Atlanta since cytomegalovirus harms people with HIV and study participants must be people who have no intent to have children. But more importantly, it provides a way for gay Atlantans to give back to a research center that's been working on an HIV vaccine for years.
"The Hope Clinic has a long history of working in the community and we've had great relationships. Frankly, we need help. If the community could help us, that would be fantastic," Mulligan said.
"They're heroes, really. We've always said that about the HIV studies we do. This is not easy. Eight days away from your life. But they are standing in as surrogates for all of us by coming in and doing this," he added.
UPDATE | The CMV study, which is open to LGBT and non-gay participants, has closed its enrollment since this article was published. But it will be re-opened this fall.
To learn more about the CMV study, go here or call the Hope Clinic at 404-712-1371.