“Thinking about it as a marathon—it’s halfway there, but that last half is pretty grueling.”
Ph.D. candidate Tony Prosser uses the metaphor of a long distance run to explain the future trajectory of his research. But recently, he seems to be progressing at more of a sprint. In the past few months, Tony’s thesis research has received a poster prize from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (AAAS), been profiled by Science Daily, and brought him a first place prize in the narrative category of Emory’s annual Three Minute Thesis competition.
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.”