Using antiretroviral therapy (ART) to treat HIV works very well to supress the virus in the body. ART can suppress the virus to undetectable levels in the blood, as long as you take the medication as prescribed. But it is not a cure, which is why people living with HIV need to take their meds continuously.

AHRI Faculty member Dr Zaza Ndhlovu and his group have been awarded a five-year National Institutes of Health (NIH) Research Project Grant (R01) for a project titled ‘Epigenetic Control of CD8 T-Cell Differentiation in Human Lymph Nodes’. Simply put, the team will be investigating why HIV persists in some tissues in the body even when people are on treatment. The project will try to understand why immune cells called ‘CD8 T cells’ that are supposed to kill the virus-infected cells are restricted from going into the precise location where the virus hides. The research team is also trying to see if they can devise new ways of luring CD8 T cells into those sites to clear the infection.

“One of the reasons the virus comes back when you stop taking medication is because it hides in certain tissues or lymph nodes. We have been trying to understand why the virus persists in these lymph node compartments, and we have seen that there are two major reasons. One is that the current drugs don’t penetrate the lymph node very well and secondly, the immune cells that kill the virus-infected cells don’t go to the specific sites where the virus persists. Our research will help to overcome both hurdles,” said Dr Ndhlovu.

Dr Ndhlovu added that he is extremely excited about the grant. “This is a big boost to our research, and an endorsement that what the team is doing has merit,” he said.

“The scientific community has recognised our contribution to this topic and getting an RO1 on our first attempt is a big deal. I’m very proud of myself and my team. We are looking forward to making even bigger contributions.”