A possible cure for HIV may lie in nanoparticles about 500 times smaller than human hair.
Howard University scientist Emmanuel O. Akala, RPh, PhD, won a nearly $800,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to attack the virus via nanotechnology. The goal is to see if the tiny nanoparticles can guide medication to wipe out the virus that causes AIDS.
If successful, this research will greatly impact the Black community. African Americans, who account for approximately 13% of the U.S. population, make up more than 40% of new HIV diagnoses and deaths. That the research takes place at Howard is significant, considering clinical studies often struggle to enroll enough Black participants. Howard University researchers will not have the same challenges ensuring Black people are represented in trials. “Howard already has the required population,” Akala says.
Current treatments successfully reduce the amount of virus in the body so that the patient can live normally. The drawback is these medications must be taken for life or the hidden virus returns, says Akala. As director of the College of Pharmacy’s Laboratory for Nanomedicine, Drug Delivery, and Pharmaceutical and Biopharmaceutical Drug Products Design and Development, he and his team hope their research can find a way to completely eliminate HIV from the body so no further treatment is needed. “That would be a cure,” Akala says. His team experienced some success in studying nanotechnology to treat HER2 positive and triple negative breast cancers.
With a cure, HIV/AIDS will no longer be a chronic disease that requires a lifetime of costly medications with their side effects. Because we are diagnosed more often and die from it more than any other race, a cure for HIV will have a monumental, positive impact on the Black community.”
The researchers’ work targets specific cells. These cells are the molecular addresses in the lymph nodes and the spleen. The nanoparticles will contain targeting ligands, which Akala describes as zip codes to ensure the medication gets delivered to the right location.
Each portion of the lymphatic system, part of the body’s immune system, contains its own unique address.
“When you write a letter, the address and zip code determine where the letter goes,” Akala says. Similarly, on the surface of diseased cells there are receptors – they are the molecular address, he says. Targeted drug delivery will use nanoparticles containing medicine with appropriate zip codes, the ligands. The targeted drug will go directly to hidden HIV cells. “The medication won’t go everywhere in the body,” he says. “We encapsulate the drug in the nanoparticle and it will be released only after it reaches its target.”
The NIH grant will fund the research into 2024. By then, the team plans to have identified the exact target, ligands, and drugs to be used. It also plans to have created a material that will deliver the medication that dissolves after reaching the target. Once that is complete, the researchers will begin small animal testing. If successful, the research will move to human studies.
Akala, who has taught at Howard University for 25 years and has won almost $12 million in research grants, stresses that more funding is needed to continue the research after the grant funds run out.
“With a cure, HIV/AIDS will no longer be a chronic disease that requires a lifetime of costly medications with their side effects,” Akala says. “Because we are diagnosed more often and die from it more than any other race, a cure for HIV will have a monumental, positive impact on the Black community.”
Article ID: 1541