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Non-Profit Foundations Funding HIV Cure Research, Fill Urgent Need

Non-profit organizations are funding some HIV/AIDS research that otherwise might not happen due to difficulties in obtaining scarce federal funding.

amfAR, the American Foundation for AIDS Research, just doled out $1.4 million in grants aimed mostly at cure-focused projects.

A group of European researchers are trying to replicate the case of “The Berlin Patient,” aka Timothy Brown, the only man in the world ever cured of HIV. The group just received a shot in the arm in the form of an $850,000 grant from amFAR.

“Working within the amfAR Research Consortium on HIV Eradication (ARCHE), a research program launched in 2010 to explore potential strategies for eliminating HIV, the scientists will study the outcomes of HIV patients who undergo different types of stem cell transplants,” amfAR reported in a news release. “Led by Javier Martinez-Picado or IrsiCaixa in Spain and Dr. Annemarie Wensing of University Medical Center Utrecht in the Netherlands, the consortium has already identified a group of patients who have undergone transplants, and continues to monitor their progress in the hope of generating new knowledge that can inform more widely applicable interventions.”

Meanwhile, The Campbell Foundation in Florida just gave $60,000 to a neurologist at Columbia University Medical Center in New York to study the relationship between HIV infection and vascular disease in the brain.

While foundations like amfAR, the Elton John Foundation and The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation more frequently make headlines due to the star power behind them, the work of the lesser-known Campbell Foundation sometimes is overlooked. All of these foundations are needed now more than ever in an era of dwindling and/or project-dedicated research dollars.

Rigorous, imperfect system creates fierce competition for NIH dollars

In a Healthline News report last year, doctor and scientist Otto Yang criticized how hundreds of millions of dollars in federal funding is being funneled toward HIV vaccine development with relatively little to show for it.

From the beginning, the CHAVI-ID program has divided the scientific community. He said the government should be supporting a wide range of research projects instead of putting so many eggs in one basket. Yang also said that a lot of waste exists in terms of “indirect costs” that go to institutions to support costs associated with research.

Other scientists have criticized the NIH’s peer-review process, saying it encourages uniformity and is disadvantageous to young scientists. “Since there are very few small private foundations still funding laboratory-based, non-profit HIV research, we do hear from many researchers who are frustrated with the federal funding system,” explained Ken Rapkin, program officer for The Campbell Foundation.

He also noted that the foundation caps the amount of money allowed for indirect costs at 10 percent. “This limits the amount that may fall into the ‘black hole’ at any university or medical school, as well as allows the research team to receive the lion’s share of funding to work on their projects. Each of our PRB (peer-review board) members has a grasp on the foundation’s desire to keep politics out of our process and focus on the science itself.”

The peer-review board serves pro bono, which allows more of its funds to go toward actual research. Every grant seeker gets a full review commentary of their application as well.

Campbell funds projects that look beyond the obvious

The Campbell Foundation’s latest grant, to Dr. Jose Gutierrez at Columbia University, is important in this new era of people with HIV living long lives and developing cardiovascular diseases such as hardening of the arteries. Yet because Gutierrez hypothesis is a novel one, involving inflammation in the brain arteries, NIH funding was more problematic to obtain.

“Dr. Gutierrez’s approach to the study of HIV and brain vascular disease departs from the premise that there may be different mechanisms of arterial disease causing stroke among those with HIV (that are different from those involved in heart disease),” Rapkin explained. “Stroke is a more diverse disease with varying array of mechanisms. Dr. Gutierrez hypothesizes that HIV proteins are a key mediator of vascular disease, either by direct infection of the arterial wall or in soluble form. The persistent inflammatory response in the arterial wall may lead to the death of muscle cells in the brain arteries that may predispose a form of arterial disease known as HIV vasculopathy.”

Rapkin said if Gutierrez’s hypothesis is confirmed, it could show that HIV infection of the arterial wall could be problematic among patients with restored immune systems “because now the immune cells will try to battle infection in the arterial wall, which will lead to greater arterial inflammation that may enhance atherosclerosis.”

Currently the NIH is funneling millions of dollars toward a study called REPRIEVE. The REPRIEVE Clinical Trial is evaluating whether a daily dose of pitavastatin, a statin used to lower cholesterol and prevent heart disease, lowers the risk of heart-related disease among people living with HIV. The REPRIEVE Clinical Trial plans to enroll 6,500 participants across 100 sites in the US and abroad.

 Earlier this year The Campbell Foundation awarded a grants to study diabetes and heart disease in children with HIV.

A hand up for new and trailblazing scientists

Once Gutierrez has results from his Campbell Foundation-funded research, he may have the additional data required to get a larger grant from the NIH to continue his work.

“Several of our grantees were told by the NIH and other governmental funders that they needed more data before they could apply for funding,” Rapkin said. “The Campbell Foundation fills this void quite often, as exemplified by UC Davis’ 2012 Campbell-funded work on stem cell gene therapy. This research team required more animal-model preliminary data prior to applying for federal funding; thanks to our seed funding, they have received FDA approval for human clinical trials.”

amfAR just gave $150,000 each to four young scientists conducting HIV research. In addition to some of that money also going toward stem cell research, the scientists will examine “covert shuttling of HIV between cells, which could be an important factor by which the virus evades the immune response and thus may maintain the viral reservoir” and “the efficacy of latency reversing drugs, studying their ability to reactivate HIV so that the immune system can kill those cells that harbor the virus.” The later study will be conducted among so-called “humanized” mice.

The Campbell Foundation gives its applicants a thorough explanation on why (or why not) their grant received funding. “We have been thanked time and time again, as researchers tell us no other funding entities they have dealt with provides, not only the review commentary, but also the re-evaluation comments if a grant makes it to that phase. Our philosophy is that an outright ‘NO,’ with no explanation or reasoning, really doesn’t help anyone.”

Since 1995, the Campbell Foundation has awarded more than $10 million toward a cure and treatment for people with HIV/AIDS