Rutgers Professor discusses HIV after earning $10 million grant for his research
The latest data suggests that around 36 million people were living with HIV globally in 2015. Over a million people with the virus live in the United States, where 1 in 8 people living with HIV are unaware of the infection.
Statistics from the website show that regardless of race, gay and bisexual men are the most severely affected by the virus.
Researchers worldwide, across the nation and even here at Rutgers, are working to find ways of relieving the dangerous effects HIV has on the body.
Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) is a virus that infects cells in our immune system known as T-cells. The infection of these cells eventually leads to the exhaustion of the immune system, said Edward Arnold, a professor in the Department of Chemistry and Chemical Biology member of the University Board of Governors Professor of Chemistry and Chemical Biology.
“When the immune system breaks down, that’s when you have Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS). HIV is the causative agent and AIDS is the result of the long-term infection and disease responding to the immune system’s breakdown,” Arnold said.
Arnold recently earned a $10 million grant for his research regarding HIV, according to the Department of Chemistry. Roger Jones and Joseph Marcotrigiano, both professors in the Department of Chemistry, and Ronald Levy, a professor at Stanford University, were part of Arnold’s research group, who altogether secured a $6.3 million grant for five years from the National Institute of General Medical Sciences (NIH).
The HIV virus can be transmitted in several different ways.
Typically, HIV is transmitted through the exchange of bodily fluids between an infected and a non-infected person. Blood transfusions or the sharing of needles between infected and non-infected persons are very important means by which the virus can be transmitted, said Jerry Joe Harrison, a graduate student in the Ernest Mario School of Pharmacy.
Everyone, including college students, should take extra precaution in order to prevent succumbing to the negative consequences of the infection.
For people who have unprotected sex, apart from the possibility of getting infected, there are also consequences like unexpected pregnancy and the negative impact one or both of these factors could have on one’s academic life, Harrison said. The use of condoms is the only way to prevent HIV transmission during sexual intercourse.
If transmission does occur, the HIV starts to further its progress within the body.
When HIV attacks cells in the immune system it not only infects them, but it also implants a copy of the genetic material into those cells through a process known as integration. Those cells are then permanently infected. Often the cells would produce many viruses, which go off and infect other cells, Arnold said.
Arnold’s team tried to understand how the virus worked in microscopic detail.
This was done by focusing on a very key part of HIV known as reverse transcriptase, which is a hallmark of this type of virus. It is an enzyme that copies the genetic material of the virus.
Arnold's team helped to discover and develop two of the drugs that are used to treat HIV infection and are sufficient to block the infection over a long period of time. They are working on methods that can accelerate drug discovery not only in the HIV system but for other key diseases, Arnold said.
Creating drugs to prevent HIV progression comes with some complications.
“We have to account for drug resistance and make sure that the virus that’s being used is being given properly so that the drug is not being given to someone who’s already resistant to it,” Arnold said.
A lot of the work that they’ve done is to try to understand the virology, molecular biology and structural biology of how drug resistance works. There are many brilliant people that were involved in designing effective treatment paradigms depending on an individual’s circumstance, he said.
Although there is no cure for HIV currently, there are treatments that can prevent the virus from further infecting cells in the body.
Arnold’s team and others who work in the field of drug development have been able to develop very effective drugs for maintaining the rate of replication of the HIV virus down to such a low level that the virus replication can basically be stopped in its tracks, Arnold said.
Arnold made an analogy of a drug’s effectiveness in preventing HIV’s progress to a burning fire.
“You put out the fire and the embers are still burning. They’re burning so slowly that you don’t have a blaze that’ll allow more buildings to burn down,” Arnold said. “If there’s no active fire burning, full health can return in the case of the body.”
Despite such treatments, certain people who are infected with the virus may have to deal with the stigma and discrimination that is associated with it.
HIV/AIDS is seen as this slow, inevitable disease. People often think that it is this super-contagious disease that can easily be contracted, so they tend to keep their distances, said Riyad Moughawech, a School of Arts and Sciences first-year student.
In the 1980s and 1990s, HIV/AIDS was associated with the LGBT community. In modern times, it is now more frequently attributed to general sexual recklessness, Moughawech said.
These stigmas arise because HIV/AIDS is falsely associated with factors such as death, homosexuality, personal irresponsibility, sex (a taboo subject in some cultures) and more according to avert.org.
Although many people in the United States are currently living with the virus, other countries are experiencing similar problems, but with more deaths.
“I came from Ghana, which has a high death rate from HIV/AIDS. Around 2 percent of the population (has) succumbed to the virus. When I came here to Rutgers I saw it as an opportunity to contribute to the fight against the infection and to try to understand its various processes,” Harrison said.
Researchers, like Harrison, are trying to figure out the exact mechanism behind how the virus replicates to infect cells.
HIV makes long transcripts of what are known as polyproteins, which are used in the replication process. Within each of these polyproteins is a very tiny entity known as protease, which then cleaves the individual polyproteins into mature enzymes, Harrison said.
Figuring out the mechanism by which the virus takes advantage of these polyproteins can be a challenge.
"We know the structures of the entities that are there, but when they are together as a unit (known as a polyprotein) we don’t have a clear understanding of how the individual entities are organized to create one unit," Harrison said.
Harrison’s job in the lab is to examine how the proteins that are included in the polyprotein are able to come together, and how these polyproteins are able to cleave themselves.
Overall, HIV research has made great strides in the past several years.
“This is one of the toughest diseases ever encountered and many effective treatments have been brought to millions of infected people,” he said. “To put things in perspective, when I began working in this area, it was a total death sentence for anyone to be infected."
HIV research has helped not just those with the virus, but people affected by certain cancers as well, he said.
Areas like cancer research have benefitted immensely from HIV research because a virus that causes cancer could have similarities with HIV, Harrison said.
“How an individual’s life could be completely changed by this infection is what drove me to see how we can control it not only in Africa, but the world in general,” he said.