Scientist Explores Innovative Approach to Fight HIV Infection in Brain Cells (July 21, 2005)

Posted: July 21, 2005 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Patty Snellings

Ideas and discoveries gleaned from one area of scientific study often benefit or influence the outcomes of other unrelated problems. Biodefense research is no exception.

Using an innovative technical approach that originated from work in biodefense, Yuntao Wu, a scientist in the university’s National Center for Biodefense and Infectious Diseases, hopes to develop a therapeutic process to target and eliminate HIV infection in brain cells.

It is estimated that more than 40 million people worldwide are infected with HIV, and more than 23 million people have died from AIDS. The most common AIDS-related brain disorder is a type of dementia that results in cognitive deficiency, motor impairment, and behavioral problems. Approximately 11 percent of AIDS patients develop this condition, even with appropriate antiviral treatment.

Yuntao Wu
Yuntao Wu
Photo by Creative Services

Wu recently received a two-year, $393,000 award from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to pursue his proposal, which received a priority score from reviewers and was ranked in the top one percentile of proposals competing for this award. If his studies are successful, they may result in a method that removes HIV from the body, which could lead scientists a step closer to a cure for AIDS.

Wu proposes to develop a therapy that attacks HIV-infected macrophages—cells that are normally the first responders of the immune system but are hijacked by the virus to be used as a major reservoir. Using a genetically engineered virus as a carrier, a toxic gene from the anthrax-causing bacterium Bacillus anthracis will be introduced into the infected macrophages in the brain. Wu believes the toxic gene will degrade viral activity and prevent the HIV virus from invading healthy cells.

Explaining that his in vitro studies are only the first phase of long-term research, Wu says it could be 10 years or more before results are available for clinical trials. “What we’re doing in this study is another major step forward in research,” he adds.

Before joining George Mason in 2003, Wu spent four years at NIH as a research fellow. His earlier work examined the impact of HIV on T-cells, a type of white blood cell in the immune system that signals other immune system cells to fight infections. He continues to work with NIH scientists on basic HIV research and has used an Equipment Transfer Agreement between the agency and the university for lab equipment valued at $300,000.

“Maintaining a relationship with NIH provides opportunities for joint support and collaborative efforts,” Wu says. “It’s also a great bonus that 80 percent of our lab equipment came from NIH surplus inventory, which enabled us to quickly set up and begin work.”

Write to at