A recent Times Higher Education article highlights universities that are pushing the boundaries as “life science challengers.” Emory is ranked in this category and chemistry research co-discovered by Dr. Dennis Liotta is highlighted.
David Stephens, vice-president for research at Emory, said that the institution had “realised its greatest success in commercialising research discoveries in the field of infectious diseases. For example, nine out of 10 US HIV/Aids patients, and thousands more globally, are on life-saving drugs discovered at Emory”.
The Department of Chemistry is honored to once again host panels from the AIDS quilt. Chemistry hosted four panels in 2015 in the new Atwood Science Commons, marking the first time the quilt had been displayed in the new building. This year, the quilt panels will be on display in the Science Commons through World AIDS Day, December 1st, 2016. On World AIDS Day, quilt panels will also be displayed on the quad as part of Emory’s Quilt on the Quad.
The Atwood Chemistry Center addition, opened in August 2015, was funded in large part by proceeds from the intellectual settlement for Emtriva, an HIV treatment discovered by chemistry professor Dr. Dennis C. Liotta and colleagues. Over 90% of AIDS patients take Emtriva as part of their medication regimen.
Emory’s commitment to treating and eradicating AIDS is also reflected by an investment in the Emory Center for AIDS Research. The Center provides support for 245 Emory and affiliated faculty, research fellows and post-doctoral fellows who conduct research throughout Emory University, the United States and globally.
The Department of Chemistry took part in World AIDS Day with the Common Ground Collective, Emory Dance, and Moving in the Spirit. Music, dance, and a marching band all joined together on campus to raise awareness of AIDS. The Science Commons stage was funded in part by proceeds from the intellectual settlement for Emtriva, the drug that over 90% of AIDS patients take. We were honored to help raise awareness of the fight against AIDS, especially as rates of infection are on the rise in Atlanta. Following the performances, the crowd marched to the Dobbs University Center where the AIDS quilt was on view. Confidential HIV testing was also offered on campus (Tuesday, December 1st, from 10am-1pm.) [Emory News Center] [AJC] [Emory Wheel]
In the race Tony is running, the stakes are high—seeking future treatments for HIV that address concerns about cost, side effects, and drug resistance seen with currently available drugs.
Specifically, Tony’s focus is on increasing the potency of a compound he designed that has the potential to offer a more robust treatment for HIV. The disease attacks initially by fusing with two receptors—CCR5 and CXCR4—on human cells. Currently available treatments have been shown to be effective at blocking HIV entry in one or the other of these proteins. This new compound shows the ability to block HIV entry in both. Additionally, the compounds have activity against HIV reverse transcriptase an anti-HIV target post cellular entry.
“We suspect compounds with “activities” against both receptors will be more effective,” says Tony. Perhaps more importantly, this compound focuses in on the “human machinery” rather than the disease itself. “HIV mutates very quickly,” explains Tony, “and because it mutates very quickly it develops resistance to viral targets very quickly. Whereas, if you target the human machinery, which essentially doesn’t mutate, HIV drug resistance should arise much slower. ”
The proposed treatment also targets another major factor that can make HIV difficult to treat—cost. “Fewer than half of the people with HIV in America are actually on treatment,” says Tony. “It’s expensive and has side effects—that’s what keeps people from seeking treatment.” He initially sought a compound that could target both CCR5 and CXCR4 for this reason: “if you target multiple things, [patients] can take fewer drugs” reducing cost and the potential for side effects.
At the AAAS meeting in Washington, D.C. where Tony won his poster prize, he also had the opportunity to share his research with a multidisciplinary audience. AAAS brings together clinicians, scientists, and physicians working in medicine and public health. Tony describes the vibrant meeting as “almost an endurance contest,” a challenging but welcome opportunity to “learn more about policy and make connections with people completely outside my field.
Tony’s trip was made possible by support from Emory’s Professional Development Support (PDS) program, which provides up to $2,500 for conference travel over a student’s Emory career. Tony’s work at Emory is supported by a Robert W. Woodruff Fellowship, Emory’s most competitive internal fellowship for entering PhD students, as well as an NSF Graduate Research Fellowship.
As evidenced by his win at the Three-Minute Thesis competition, part of what makes Tony’s research so powerful is his ability to tell stories about his science. He has a way of making the smallest details part of a bigger narrative picture, for instance, when he talks about teaching the undergraduates he mentors how to fold filter paper: “Most people fold it once, but I’ve learned to do an accordion fold, which drains like sixteen times faster! It’s such a small thing, but when I explain it to students, it affects their work flow for the rest of their science career.”
Mentoring students and collaborating with fellow grad students and postdocs is central to Tony’s approach. “Even [if] they aren’t specifically on my project, it’s an important part of my design protocol—having someone to bounce these ideas off of.”
Dr. Liotta praises Tony’s research as well as his collegial spirit:
“When he started at Emory, Tony already had substantial research experience,” says his research mentor, Dennis C. Liotta. “During his time here, he has grown tremendously in both an intellectual and professional sense. He is an excellent experimentalist, a fine speaker and an outstanding mentor to the undergraduate students who work with him. He’s made very important contributions to three of the major projects that are ongoing in our lab. We’re very fortunate to have him in our program.”
Essentially, we took a step back and said instead of creating yet another cocktail of multiple drugs to stop the different mechanisms of HIV, we thought we could design one that hit multiple targets at once.