NEW YORK (GenomeWeb News) — The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded $20.5 million to the Massachusetts General Hospital and partnering institutions to study the genomes and immune systems of people whose bodies naturally control HIV without drugs.
The five-year grant will expand an ongoing international effort to study the genes of these so-called HIV controllers, who are HIV-positive but have remained healthy for as long as 25 years without medication.
These patients represent a minority of HIV-positive people. One group, called viremic controllers, are able to maintain viral loads below 2,000 copies/ml, while another group, called aviremic or "elite" controllers, can maintain viral loads of less than 50 copies/ml. It is estimated that only 1 in 300 HIV-positive individuals is an elite controller.
The Gates Foundation award will support the expansion of the HIV Controllers Study, which MGH launched in 2006 with a $2.5 million grant from the Mark and Lisa Schwartz Foundation. The program has already recruited almost 1,000 controllers and plans to expand the study group to 2,000 participants – 1,000 elite controllers and 1,000 viremic controllers.
The researchers will sequence 650,000 SNP sites in the genome of each participant and will compare the genotypes of the HIV controllers against those of 3,000 people who are suffering from progressive HIV infection in order to identify genetic factors that may be associated with viremic control.
“We believe that it is critical to understand how these individuals – who are maintaining viral levels so low that transmission and disease progression should decrease markedly – are keeping the virus in check and preventing it from causing disease,” said Bruce Walker, director of the Partners AIDS Research Center at MGH and the principal investigator on the grant.
“Since other approaches to vaccine development have not been successful, uncovering how some humans are able to coexist with the virus without developing AIDS, in spite of not receiving any therapies, is critical,” explained Steven Deeks, a collaborator in the study at the University of California at San Francisco.
Several other institutions are also collaborating in the project, including the Broad Institute of Harvard University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology; Brigham and Women’s Hospital; the University of KwaZulu Natal, Durban, South Africa; the National Cancer Institute; Rockefeller University; the University of California at San Diego; the University of Lausanne, Switzerland; and the US Defense Institute for Medical Operations.