May 23, 2003

Vanderbilt, Meharry establish new Center for AIDS Research

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Dr. Richard T. D’Aquila will lead the new HIV research center at Vanderbilt. (photo by Dana Johnson)

Vanderbilt, Meharry establish new Center for AIDS Research

AIDS research in Nashville has been given a big boost with the establishment of a new, federally funded center to be operated jointly by Vanderbilt University Medical Center and Meharry Medical College.

The Vanderbilt-Meharry Developmental Center for AIDS Research, supported by a three-year, $750,000-a-year grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH), is one of 20 CFARs (centers for AIDS research) that have been established nationwide since 1988.

“We’ve been recognized for the tremendous potential we have to contribute to the global fight against AIDS,” said Dr. Richard T. D’Aquila, director of the Division of Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt who will direct the center.

The goal of the grant is to encourage collaboration between Vanderbilt and Meharry, and train new investigators to advance AIDS treatment and prevention. At the end of the three-year grant period, the developmental center can apply for full center status and a larger continuation grant, he added.

Vanderbilt and Meharry have been collaborating for several years on research involving the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV), which causes AIDS, and which is spread primarily by sexual contact and intravenous drug use. Current AIDS-related funding by the NIH at both institutions exceeds $7 million.

The new center is an initiative of the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance, established in 1999 to promote collaboration between the two institutions in teaching, research and patient care.

“This center will bring the core research infrastructure of Vanderbilt together with Meharry’s expertise in treating HIV/AIDS, particularly among minority populations,” said Dr. PonJola Coney, dean of the School of Medicine and senior vice president for Health Affairs at Meharry. “It is another example showing how the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance enables our institutions to obtain new resources that neither institution could obtain singly.”

According to Janet M. Young, Ph.D., CFAR program officer in the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Disease, the Vanderbilt-Meharry center is the first CFAR to include a traditionally African-American institution, Meharry.

“The NIH is excited and hopeful that this award will expand collaborations among AIDS investigators at Vanderbilt and Meharry, and lead to success in … studies related to racial disparities, the development of expertise relevant to understanding and control of the epidemic in the Southeast, and international HIV research,” Young said.

“We already have a lot of strength in clinical HIV research, genetics and pharmacogenomics,” said D’Aquila, Addison B. Scoville Professor of Medicine. “The review committee thought it was a real plus to merge Vanderbilt’s scientific strength with Meharry’s strength in education of minorities and access to the minority community.”

The idea is “to try to encourage a multi-disciplinary effort to study racial and other disparities in HIV infection,” he added. African-Americans are disproportionately affected by HIV, and rates of infection are higher in the Southeast than in other parts of the country.

The new center is the latest example of scientific collaborations between Meharry and Vanderbilt that aim to understand and reduce the disproportionate impact of diseases such as cancer, diabetes and asthma on minority populations.

“The awarding of the CFAR developmental grant recognizes the strengths in patient care, teaching and research in HIV/AIDS at both Meharry and Vanderbilt,” explained Dr. Steven G. Gabbe, dean of the Vanderbilt University School of Medicine. “It demonstrates our ability to work together to reduce health care disparities in HIV/AIDS locally and nationally.”

“The center will be a tremendous asset and wonderful opportunity for Nashville and Middle Tennessee,” said Joseph Interrante, executive director of Nashville CARES, a non-profit agency that provides HIV prevention education and social services to people living with HIV/AIDS and those at risk of being infected.

“Its close relationship to clinicians will help our HIV care providers stay on the cutting edge of understanding about HIV pathogenesis and ways to treat the disease effectively,” Interrante said.

The center also will draw on its long-standing collaboration with Nashville’s Comprehensive Care Center, one of the nation’s largest outpatient AIDS treatment programs. The center’s medical director, Dr. Stephen P. Raffanti, is associate professor of Medicine at Vanderbilt.

“It is one of the best models of an integrated HIV outpatient center in the United States,” D’Aquila said. The Comprehensive Care Center follows more than 2,000 patients with the help of an electronic database and specimen archive. “That’s a huge strength, to have clinical information and specimens to draw on for research,” he added.

Vanderbilt and Meharry also contribute to international efforts to improve treatment of AIDS and prevent the spread of the disease.

For example, Dr. Peter Wright, chief of Pediatric Infectious Diseases at Vanderbilt, has worked for several years with researchers in Haiti. That relationship has led to a new collaboration between the Vanderbilt AIDS Clinical Trials Center, which conducts studies in patients of promising AIDS treatments, and a clinical trials center in Haiti.

Dr. Vladimir Berthaud, a native of Haiti who directs the Division of Infectious Diseases at Meharry, also trains Haitian AIDS specialists.

“It is our critical role in this part of the country to be a leader in HIV discovery and treatment,” explained Dr. Eric G. Neilson, Hugh J. Morgan Professor and Chairman of the Department of Medicine at Vanderbilt. “The Alliance is building one of the most dynamic groups of investigators in AIDS anywhere.

“I am particularly pleased that our outreach extends to the Caribbean, which has the highest proportion of HIV in their population next to Africa,” Neilson said. “We hope the lessons we learn here at home will make a difference elsewhere.”

“The Vanderbilt-Meharry Developmental CFAR will help coordinate and accelerate all of these diverse efforts,” said Dr. David W. Haas, an associate director of the new center, and principal investigator of the Vanderbilt AIDS Clinical Trials Center.

“The CFAR will enhance the ability of investigators at Vanderbilt and Meharry to address important scientific questions that require patient participation or access to clinical samples or data,” said Haas, associate professor of Medicine. “It builds upon an infrastructure that has been assembled over many years, and this is the next logical step in that sequence.

“In the Nashville community, we have a very large population of HIV-infected individuals who benefit from the fruits of a vigorous research program,” Haas said. “The CFAR will allow our clinical research efforts to have an even more far-reaching impact.”

Berthaud, also an associate director of the new center, said he hopes it will bolster efforts to open an AIDS clinical trial unit at Meharry. “This is very important,” he says of the grant. “It will help us answer some questions about health disparities in HIV/AIDS. We need to study that more, in a more systematic fashion.”

D’Aquila credited Alyssa Brake, an administrator of the Vanderbilt-Meharry center, with helping to put together the successful grant application. The center consists of several cores, which are now in operation. They include:

• A developmental core, directed by Dr. Philip J. Browning, assistant professor of Medicine and Cancer Biology at Vanderbilt, which awards internal grants to new investigators and funds pilot feasibility studies in AIDS research. Wright and Maria de Fatima Lima, Ph.D., dean of the Meharry School of Graduate Studies and Research, are associate directors.

• A clinical discovery core, which supports the work of clinical investigators and facilitates “translational” research from the laboratory to the bedside. Haas is the director and Berthaud is the associate director of this core.

• An immunpathogenesis core, which provides immunology laboratory services to investigators. Drs. Spyros A. Kalams and James Crowe of Vanderbilt are the director and associate director, respectively.

• A molecular virology and genetics core, which provides sophisticated genetic and virus culture techniques. Drs. Paul W. Spearman and Yi-Wei Tang of Vanderbilt are the director and associate director.

“The point of the laboratory cores is to provide services for investigators to make it easier to start HIV research projects,” D’Aquila said.

The ultimate solution to the worldwide AIDS epidemic is a vaccine that can prevent HIV infection. Vanderbilt is heavily committed to that effort, too. “While we’re working toward that long-term goal, (we need to) keep improving therapy so that (AIDS) really can become a controllable disease that will not kill people,” he said.