September 29, 2006

NIH upgrades AIDS research center’s status

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NIH upgrades AIDS research center’s status

The Vanderbilt-Meharry Center for AIDS Research (CFAR) has been awarded an additional five years of funding by the National Institutes of Health (NIH), and upgraded from developmental to full center status.

The award will provide $1.2 million annually in direct and indirect costs, said center director Richard D'Aquila, M.D. One of 20 NIH-funded centers for AIDS research in the country, it also becomes eligible for supplemental funding.

“Our strength was our collaboration,” said D'Aquila, professor of Microbiology & Immunology. “It was not difficult to demonstrate the CFAR had added value by strengthening collaborations and bringing people in different disciplines together.”

“On a global scale, AIDS is arguably the greatest infectious disease challenge in history,” added David Haas, M.D., associate professor of Medicine and Microbiology & Immunology. “Effectively dealing with this deadly disease requires a comprehensive and synergistic approach to research that spans fundamental laboratory-based investigation, behavioral and prevention research, vaccine development, therapeutics and many other disciplines.

“The fact that the Vanderbilt-Meharry CFAR was able to successfully compete for full CFAR funding in an increasingly competitive funding environment is validation that our highly collaborative research community is ideally positioned to continue making major contributions in our shared struggle against AIDS,” said Haas, who directs the center's clinical discovery core.

In particular, the arrival last year of Sten Vermund, M.D., Ph.D., to direct the Vanderbilt Institute for Global Health, and James Hildreth, M.D., Ph.D., to direct Meharry Medical College's Comprehensive Center for Health Disparities Research in HIV, were important factors in attaining renewal of NIH funding, D'Aquila said.

Hildreth, who came from Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore and who directs CFAR's developmental core, has already substantially increased laboratory HIV research at Meharry, D'Aquila said, while Vermund, from the University of Alabama at Birmingham, has contributed to the center's “phenomenal” growth in international research.

“The Vanderbilt-Meharry CFAR is unusual in several ways,” said Vermund, who directs AIDS research projects in Africa, India and China. “While highlighting excellence in basic and clinical science, it is also committed to the health disparities agenda, both domestically and internationally.”

The Vanderbilt-Meharry Developmental Center for AIDS Research opened in May 2003 with a three-year, $750,000 NIH grant.

Several key programs have aided CFAR's growth, said D'Aquila, who also directs the Department of Medicine's Division of Infectious Diseases.

An example is Nashville's Comprehensive Care Center, one of the nation's largest outpatient AIDS treatment programs, which follows more than 2,000 patients with the help of an electronic database and specimen archive. That collaboration, combined with the clinical discovery core, has “greatly strengthened our outcomes research programs,” he said.

“Many diverse projects have been already been facilitated by this core,” Haas added, “such as the effect of pregnancy on outcomes in HIV-infected women, better understanding immune responses to HIV, deciding when is the best time to start HIV therapy, and identifying human genetic predictors of drug toxicity.”

Another example is the center's strong HIV vaccine program, led by Peter Wright, M.D., chief of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Diseases, and Spyros Kalams, M.D., who directs the CFAR immunopathogenesis core. The core offers immunology laboratory services to investigators, including a state-of-the-art cell sorter.

The Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance, which promotes collaboration between the two Nashville academic health centers in teaching, research and patient care, has also helped CFAR.

“We are now focusing on adding new HIV virology expertise,” D'Aquila said. Future programs under consideration include growing a drug discovery program to identify new AIDS therapies, and improving HIV infection prevention efforts.