U of U researchers receive $21.8 million grant to image HIV virus

Five years after winning a National Institutes of Health grant to set up a center to study HIV, the University of Utah has been awarded $21.8 million more to develop ways to image and understand the structural biology of the virus and cells that it infects.

U of U scientists are developing technology to image HIV in the highest possible resolution as it moves through cells, an important step in understanding how HIV uses the machinery of host cells to replicate and spread. Once that process is understood, new treatment and prevention therapies might be developed, said Wes Sundquist, a spokesperson for the project.

“Viruses are parasites, meaning they have to use cellular mechanisms to thrive,” Sundquist said. “Our goal is to understand how HIV uses the host cell and then to see that knowledge translated into therapies.”

In 2007, the NIH selected the U of U, University of Pittsburgh and University of California, San Francisco, to establish three centers that study HIV. The U of U received $19 million. This year, the grants to all three universities were renewed along with new grants to establish HIV research centers at the University of Michigan and the Scripps Research Institute in San Diego.

The U of U’s mission is to study the structural biology of the virus and host-cell interactions that lead to the assembly and spread of HIV.

The center’s first five years showed much progress in understanding HIV, said Michael Sakalian, an official overseeing the grant.

“During its first five years of NIH funding, this (U of U) specialized center has been exceptionally productive in identifying and characterizing the host factors essential to the growth of HIV,” Sakalian said.

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