Dr. Keith Jerome ’85 thinks he and his team of research scientists in Seattle may be close to treating the root cause of HIV/AIDS – a viral needle in a haystack – thanks to the faith and funding of two heavy-hitter foundations.
Both the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the National Institute of Allergy & Infectious Diseases (National Institutes of Health) have put their money into the work of Jerome and colleagues from the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center and the University of Washington Department of Laboratory Medicine.
“The Gates Foundation has a real burden for supporting global health,” Dr. Jerome said. “The Gates (Grand Challenges) Explorations effort was looking for really ‘crazy’ research projects. They expected most would be unsuccessful.”
But, the Gates Foundation liked Jerome’s out-of-the-box thinking enough to fund his team’s work last year for $1 million over two years. The goal: to find a way to cure latent HIV infection using novel proteins calling homing endonucleases in infected cells, effectively eliminating the virus.
“We were able to change the virus in living cells so that it no longer can reproduce,” said Jerome, the principal investigator. “We were astounded how well it worked.”
In July 2011, Jerome and team – working with California-based biopharmaceutical company Sangamo Biosciences Inc. –received $20 million over the next five years from the NIH. That additional boost has him hopeful that a cure for this global horror is in reach.
Here’s an excerpt of what Dr. Jerome wrote for Global Health magazine in March 2011:
Great strides have been made in the development of drugs to manage HIV infection. Yet significant challenges to treatment remain – especially in resource-poor settings where HIV infection rates are among the highest in the world. Lifelong treatment is expensive, even when low-cost generic drugs are available. Additionally, if resistance arises, there is little opportunity for access to second-line therapy. Social, economic and political factors can also interrupt access to drugs at any time, putting patients at risk.
Imagine, instead, a cure. It goes without saying that a cure for HIV would have a dramatic impact on the lives of all those infected – particularly those who do not currently have access to the best treatment. A single course, reasonably priced and widely available, could replace lifelong drug regimens. Cured individuals would no longer be infectious, and problems of drug adherence and viral relapse would be eliminated.
To date, there has been little hope of a cure for HIV, but my research group is one of the many trying to change that trajectory. The HIV virus works by taking a steadfast grip on the cells of those infected. It makes its way into some of the longest-lived cells in the human body – memory T cells of the immune system – and weaves copies of its own DNA into the host’s DNA. None of the existing approaches are able to find the HIV needle within this chromosomal haystack.
Jerome said countries with millions infected with HIV – like India, which he recently visited, and African nations where people take medications for a while, but often stop because of economic, political, or military disruptions – will be where a cure is most successful.
“In this country, we almost seem to think the problem is solved,” Dr. Jerome said. “But, now instead of medications and lifetime therapy, people of science are losing their reluctance to even consider the possibility of a cure for HIV. Now we can talk about it!”
Yes, there will be safety trials. “Many steps need to be taken – but I don’t want to suppress hope where there should be hope.”
When he was a pre-med Georgetown student with a major in Chemistry, Keith Jerome did not envision being involved in an area of medicine that affects millions. “I just knew I wanted to go to medical school. I didn’t know how research and science would come together,” said Jerome, who would go on and get his PhD and medical degrees at Duke University.
He fondly remembers the support of such professors as John Blackburn and Frank Wiseman. They instilled in him, he said, a desire “to think big, learn skills to make a difference, and leave a mark.”
And Dr. Jerome brought that message to Georgetown students in April 2012 when he was on campus to visit with Science majors and deliver the Hatfield Lecture. He added, “Georgetown College students have more opportunities with the way the world is changing and they need to seize them.”