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January 2nd, 2013

Pitt receives $11.5 million for HIV research program

By Rebecca Nuttall

Special to the NNPA from the New Pittsburgh Courier

Despite the current decline in HIV infection rates, more than an estimated 22 million new infections will occur by 2015. In an effort to address the HIV epidemic, the Bill & Melinda Gates foundation recently awarded $11.5 million in grants for HIV research to the University of Pittsburgh Schools of the Health Sciences and Magee-Womens Research Institute.

Among the grant recipients is University of Pittsburgh’s Center for Vaccine Research, the Drug Discovery Institute and the Graduate School of Public Health. Their $1 million grant will go toward the development of a new test to detect HIV in the earliest stages of the disease and could eventually lead to a vaccine.

"This project is designed to develop new diagnostic tests for HIV infected patients," said Ronald Montelaro, co-director of the Center for Vaccine Research. "While we have very good tests that tell us whether a person is infected, what we can not tell is how long a person has been infected. That becomes important in terms of determining treatment."

With new HIV infections, it can take months for an individual to test positive, and even longer for them to show symptoms. By detecting the disease as early as possible, doctors are able to immediately start a patient on antiretroviral therapy, which reduces the progression of the disease into AIDS.

"It’s kind of like HD TV, you’ll have a much better picture," Montelaro said. "It may give us a fingerprint that helps us identify reasons why some people with HIV never develop AIDS."

Developing more diagnostic testing will teach researchers more about HIV/AIDS and could lead to the successful creation of a vaccine. However, until that day, more advance tests are especially beneficial to those in the African American community.

"Because AIDS is disproportionately present in minority populations in the United States, these new technologies will help us understand the progression of the disease," Montelaro said. "For minority communities in general, any new kinds of information about the infection in that population can help optimize therapy and prevention."

The other research projects being funded include exploring the influence of hormonal contraception on HIV infection, preventing HIV infection with monthly injections, and distributing anti-HIV drugs.

"Funding for research is being cut like many other areas," Montelaro said. "The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been very generous in funding AIDS research so this is a real boost, to take an absolutely new technology, this funding allows us to pioneer and really have an impact on the disease."

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation awarded nearly 50 grants to HIV/AIDS organizations and researchers in 2012. Their goal is to stop the spread of HIV by expanding access to prevention strategies.

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