Mason Researcher Yuntao Wu Seeks New Ways to Fight AIDS

Posted: August 18, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Yuntao Wu and lab staff
Yuntao Wu, seated far right, and his lab staff. From left, undergraduate Anastasya Jabaly; lab manager Paul Vorster; PhD students Suba Iyer and Bea Meltzer; technician Dongyang Yu; and PhD students Mark Spear and Weifeng Wang.

By Marjorie Musick

In a small lab on Mason’s Prince William Campus in Manassas, Yuntao Wu and his team of researchers are working on something very big. Wu, assistant professor in the College of Science’s Molecular and Microbiology Department, has spent the last six years decoding the molecular processes of the AIDS virus.

Yuntao Wu
Yuntao Wu

AIDS, a devastating disease that is caused by the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), affected more than 33 million people worldwide in 2007, according to World Health Organization statistics.

“If you ask anyone working on AIDS why they are doing this, they will probably tell you that they want to cure the disease and help people. That is the ultimate goal,” says Wu. “Once we really comprehend the basic mechanism of how HIV interacts with the body, then it may be possible to target and treat the infection.”

New Inroads in AIDS Research

A team of eight, comprising graduate students and lab technicians, is helping Wu to blaze trails in AIDS research by unraveling the mystery of how the virus destroys CD4 T or “helper” T-cells.

“We’re a very small lab, and for the number of people that we have, we do an incredible amount of work — but it’s because of Yuntao. He kind of masterminds everything,” says Paul Vorster, lab manager. “He’s good at lifting people to a level that they themselves are not at yet.”

The team is pursuing a new treatment based on a Trojan horse concept in which a particle that looks and behaves like the virus is used to target HIV-infected cells. The imposter particles then seek out and infiltrate cells containing a known HIV protein called Rev.

“The theory is that once these fake particles identify and invade infected cells, the Rev protein will trigger the release of a toxin that will eliminate the virus’ reservoir,” explains Wu. “So in this sense, it is just like a Trojan horse — it sneaks into the enemy’s territory and then jumps out and attacks.”

What makes Wu’s research unique is his strategy of inducing the decay of HIV-infected T-cells so that patients may stop drug treatment without the virus rebounding.

“Right now, once the patient is put on therapy, it’s a lifetime treatment, arguably, because the current cocktail of drugs that is used only inhibits the virus. Those blocks prevent HIV from spreading, but they are not able to destroy the virus’ resources,” says Wu. “We are trying to develop a new therapy that will reduce the virus’ reservoir so that it will no longer be a living threat to the body.”

Supporting the Search for a Cure

Although his work is largely funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), Wu notes that having to constantly secure research funding is a challenge that steals valuable time away from his bench work. He estimates that developing a new therapy — a process which typically takes 10 years from initial lab work to animal tests and clinical trials — will cost millions.

But help is on the way. In late spring, Wu learned that he had been selected as the 2008 NYC DC AIDS Research Ride’s sole beneficiary. From Sept. 12 to 15, a team of approximately 40 bicycle riders will journey 330 miles from Manhattan to the District of Columbia, raising $200,000 to support the next stage of his research.

Marty Rosen, founder of the NYC DC AIDS Research Ride, learned about Wu’s work in late 2007 from a friend who told her that the AIDS community was buzzing about his study of HIV/AIDS.

“I look for researchers for whom the support of a small number of people can really make a difference and possibly change the course of history,” says Rosen. “A lot of very smart people were excited about Dr. Wu’s T-cell work. It was obviously something truly innovative.”

The Path to Human Virology

Human disease was not always the subject of Wu’s investigations. He earned a doctorate in virology in 1998 from Queens University in Kingston, Ontario, Canada, after spending four years studying the DNA replication of the baculovirus family — a group of viruses that are fatal to insects and are often used for nonchemical pest control.

It was not until Wu joined NIH in 1999 that he began examining HIV infection in humans.

“After four years of focusing on insect viruses, I really wanted to study human viruses so that I could see my work translated as a benefit to patients,” says Wu. “When I started at the NIH, HIV was one of the biggest health threats facing the world, and I thought that maybe I could do something to help fight it.

“I visit AIDS clinics to collect blood samples from patients, and it is obvious that many people are suffering.”

The proximity to his former NIH colleagues — Manassas is about a 45-minute drive from the District of Columbia — and the university’s commitment to advancing the biosciences were both deciding factors in Wu’s decision to join Mason’s faculty in 2003.

“Mason is a young and very dynamic university, and I think that with the university’s support, we can establish one of the best HIV labs right here in Manassas,” says Wu. “It is also close to D.C., so I can still collaborate with my colleagues at the NIH.”

The Ultimate Goal

A widely published researcher whose work has appeared in prestigious scientific journals such as Science, Journal of Virology, Virology, Retrovirology and Current HIV Research, Wu believes that a solution to the AIDS epidemic is possible.

“The more we understand the virus, the better we will be able to fight it,” says Wu. “Every time we discover something new in our lab, we really get excited because it brings us that much closer to finding a cure.”

To learn more about the 2008 NYC DC AIDS Research Ride, see

Yuntao Wu and student
Yuntao Wu and PhD student Suba Iyer.
Photos by Evan Cantwell

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