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Upcoming NIH Funding for HIV Treatments Open to RNAi, microRNA Research Projects

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The National Institutes of Health this week announced that it plans to issue a funding opportunity designed to foster research into new strategies for fighting HIV, including ones based on siRNAs and microRNAs.

The new initiative builds off of a 2011 program, called Beyond HAART: Innovative Therapies to Control HIV-1, that was focused on new "therapeutic approaches that could allow HIV-1 infected persons to discontinue current HIV-1 treatments for a sustained period without viral rebound."

But while this first funding opportunity was specifically geared towards research into a functional cure for the virus, the upcoming program will focus on eradicating it, an NIH official told Gene Silencing News.

With a functional cure, a patient would either be able to cut the number of treatments required or discontinue therapy altogether, Sandra Bridges Gurgo, chief of the targeted interventions branch of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, explained. Still, the virus would remain in a patient, albeit at suppressed levels.

"For eradication, you would expect that if you get rid of the bulk of the virus, it would never come back and you would never have to have another treatment," she said.

"We've turned the corner" with existing antiretroviral therapies, she added. "We know that we can suppress the virus," and now eradication stands as the next challenge.

The upcoming funding opportunity announcement is slated for release in early 2014, but the NIH decided to issue a notice ahead of time in order to give investigators extra time to prepare for what is going to be a "complex application," Bridges Gurgo noted.

Additionally, the NIH is directing potential grant applicants to the Beyond HAART funding opportunity so that they can review its requirements to "get an idea of what they need to be getting together until they get the full information" when the new FOA is published.

According to the 2011 funding opportunity, the NIH was seeking "test-of-concept studies in animals and humans. Such studies must be directly linked to basic research and/or preclinical development … and must be initiated prior to the final year of the award." Clinical studies, the agency noted, would be "few in number and of small size."

Types of research not included in the scope of the 2011 funding opportunity included strategies that rely on frequent therapeutic dosing, dendritic cell-based therapeutic vaccines, small molecule drug discovery and development targeting viral replication, and clinical trials that are ready for implementation without further basic or preclinical research.

It did include RNA-based approaches, and research involving RNAi and miRNAs were specifically highlighted as areas of interest for the upcoming opportunity. Bridges Gurgo added that with delivery remaining a key hurdle for these kinds of therapeutics, "we'd like to see people working on … ways to deliver" such gene-silencing molecules.

A key component of the Beyond HAART initiative was also the formation of partnerships between academia and the private sector, and each application had to be composed of, at minimum, two interrelated individual research projects and an administrative core. The project leader of at least one of the individual research projects needed to be employed by a private sector entity, and another must be employed by a university or other academic institution.

In its announcement this week, the NIH stated that it is once again seeking only applications around "collaborative efforts between academia and the private sector, with a maximum number of four projects, at least one of which originates from the private sector, an administrative core, and optional scientific cores."

Additional details can be found here.

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