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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


UA experts help national team develop HIV cure

UA infectious diseases experts will collaborate and become part of a national team working to develop a cure for HIV through a $28 million, five-year grant funded by the National Institutes of Health.

The UA is one of 18 institutions participating in the Martin Delaney Collaboratory program, and will be a part of the BELIEVE—or Bench to Bed Enhance Lymphocyte Infusions to Engineer Viral Eradication—project.

“We’re heading into a project that will try to target killer cells to places in the body where the virus is hiding,” said Elizabeth Connick, M.D., chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases, UA professor of medicine and the local investigative lead on the project. “If this therapy works, we think people will be able to have essentially a functional cure.”

The BELIEVE project focuses on improving a patient’s natural immune system by making it better at eliminating HIV reservoirs.

Connick said patients will be cured in the sense that the virus in their body won’t be able to replicate.

Of the $28 million, Connick expects to receive around $650,000 which will go to her lab to fund the project where they will develop the therapy and test it.

“It’s a five year grant so if what we do is promising, then it will be renewed,” Connick said. “If HIV has been cured by then, it won’t be renewed. It’s hard to predict the future. Even if it is cured, it probably won’t happen in five years, but we can always hope.”

By the end of 2014, there were approximately 36.9 million people living with HIV/AIDS worldwide, according to More than 1.2 million of which live in the United States, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

While the UA is going to begin searching for a cure, there are currently individuals at UA and Banner – University Medical Center working with HIV patients to educate the population about risk factors and looking for ways to increase knowledge, access and affordability to HIV treatments.

UA houses the Arizona AIDS Education and Training Center and the Petersen HIV Clinics, both of which are rated among the top three in the country for HIV patient care.

Arizona AETC and the Petersen Clinics, which are funded by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, are located at Banner – UMC Tucson and Banner – UMC South.

The Arizona AETC’s mission is to improve the care of HIV patients through the training of healthcare providers.

“One of the things we’re seeing happening on a national and even a global level is that HIV is increasingly becoming a disease of poverty and inequality,” Alyssa Guido said, Arizona AIDS Education and Training Center program director. “The CDC recently came out with some staggering numbers about risk for lifetime HIV infection.”

Guido said the CDC found that one in nine African-American males, one in six African-American females and one in two gay or bisexual men will be diagnosed with HIV in their lifetime.

“There’s a lot of complex socioeconomic reasons for that, but a large one is a lack of access to healthcare and health education and not having regular checkups with a primary caregiver about how to protect yourself from HIV and STDs,” Guido said.

The Petersen HIV Clinics currently serves about 1,300 people who are infected with HIV and around 80 people who are considering themselves to be at risk for HIV infection, with 18 full-time individuals who support patients from the early stages of connection said Shannon Smith, special projects program director within the Division of Infectious Diseases.

“One of the biggest challenges I think with our patient population and how I made the connection between the management of a chronic illness and having access to the cure … is making sure that patients know they are infected,” Smith said. “Having systems that are available to screen patients in a comfortable and confidential way and are readily accessible and affordable in our community is our first step to getting a treatment or a cure.”

Smith said there’s a large portion of people who don’t know they’re infected or are living with controlled HIV.

“It’s difficult to take a pill every day, to find a way to the doctor and to live with a chronic illness and not get burned out or feel stigmatized,” Smith said. “Staying engaged in care is actually pretty challenging and when you look at moving care to a cure, I think some of those pathways are going to continue.”

Both Smith and Guido were happy to see the government invest funding into finding a cure for HIV.

“There will be a lot of good minds at work trying to figure out how we’re going to stop the disease and it feels nice to have it here and have it so close to so many of the patients we see kind of struggling to navigate their lives while being infected,” Smith said. “To be able to share with the patients that were part of a team that’s working to end this disease feels good from a caregiver perspective to assure them that we’re not just treating the disease and looking at ways to make living with HIV better, but we’re also looking toward the future in hopefully being able to cure it.”

Out of the 1.2 million people in the U.S. living with HIV, one in eight don’t know they’re infected. Smith encourages everyone to know their HIV status and that HIV testing is available at Campus Health.

Follow Chastity Laskey on Twitter.

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