Yale Daily News

A new initiative called the HOPE Collaboratory, which is funded by a $26.5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health and contains a program co-directed by a professor at the Yale School of Medicine, could bring the world a step closer to finding a cure for HIV.

Priti Kumar, an associate professor in the Department of Internal Medicine, has been named the co-director of a branch of the HIV Obstruction by Programmed Epigenetics, or HOPE, Collaboratory. Kumar’s laboratory works in conjunction with a multitude of researchers under the umbrella of a flagship NIH program, Martin Delaney Collaboratories for HIV Cure Research. The HOPE Collaboratory includes researchers from across the world.

“The exciting part about HOPE is that it is a huge enterprise with 15 research groups, different countries, different continents, many groups coming together and really focusing on this one goal, which is to cure HIV by silencing and inactivating it,” said Melanie Ott, one of the three principal investigators of the collaboratory and director of the Gladstone Institute of Virology.

In many cases, individuals diagnosed with HIV are treated through antiretroviral therapy, but because of HIV’s ability to exist in a latent state within cells, it often returns once the treatment is removed from an individual’s system.

Currently, HIV is considered an incurable disease — which is where collaboratories like HOPE play an essential role.

“HIV is a particularly tricky one,” Susana Valente, another of the collaboratory’s principal investigators and an associate professor of immunology and microbiology at the Scripps Research Institute’s Florida campus. “It’s very smart. It evolves quite rapidly. It’s a hard nut to crack, but I think we are in a great place now with this collaboratory to address a lot of questions and try to make a really big advance in terms of progress in the cure for HIV and in the functional cure or eradication altogether.”

Studying HIV can be especially challenging because as a human virus, it can only infect and express fully in human cells, according to Kumar. This aspect of the virus has made studying its pathogenic effects in other animal species difficult. Kumar is set to play an important role in this project through research conducted at her lab.

Kumar’s lab has developed a method of generating human immune systems in mice to create “humanized mice.” These mice could provide a venue for testing possible HIV cures created by other labs in the collaboratory. These potential applications are what caused Kumar to be recruited for the project.

“Scientists from Gladstone, Scripps and Rockefeller were putting together a collaboratory to use CRISPRs and similar gene therapeutic mechanisms to cure HIV,” Kumar said. “They found my lab to be an excellent platform to fit in because we can test their molecules. We can use our delivery systems, and we can essentially come together to develop the next generation of biologics that can potentially be used to target the provirus, the virus that’s sitting in the genetic material.”

Kumar will participate in other aspects of the program as well. The HOPE Collaboratory has adopted the motto of “block, lock and excise” to describe its approach toward finding a cure for HIV. 

The goal is to “block” the virus by preventing it from replicating and then “lock” the virus in this silent stage so it cannot resume activity. The last step is to “excise” it from the body with strategies developed by Kumar’s lab using CRISPRs, which are molecules used to modify organisms’ genes.

“[Kumar] is really the one who is instrumental in spearheading this research focus and is one of the leading authorities in modifying and using gene therapies to tackle HIV,” Ott said.

Valente also highlighted the importance of Kumar’s contribution, in saying that she is “an amazing investigator” and already has a lot of helpful tools for this kind of research in her lab, such as the humanized mice and CRISPR technology.

Approximately 37.9 million individuals were suffering from HIV as of 2020, according to HIV.gov.

Elizabeth Watson served as a Science & Technology Editor for the News. She previously covered breakthrough research as a staff writer and illustrates for various sections. Elizabeth is a junior in Pauli Murray College double majoring in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (E&EB) and Humanities.