U of M researcher awarded $10M to study HIV

A scientist at the University of Minnesota has been awarded $10 million from the National Institutes of Health to conduct what he calls "trailblazing" HIV research.

Reuben Harris, a scientist in the university's College of Biological Sciences, said most research focuses on developing drugs to kill HIV. But his study focuses on helping the body use it's natural ability to destroy the virus.

Harris said HIV is a hard target to hit, because it keeps changing.

"I call it a genetic chameleon because it changes continuously so that no infected person has the exact same virus as another infected person," Harris said.

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Harris said all people, including those with HIV, carry a family of antiviral proteins, which has the ability to destroy HIV. However, Harris said HIV produces a protein of its own that attaches to the body's antiviral proteins and disables them.

Harris and researchers will examine high-resolution images to see how the attacker and defender proteins interact. He said the goal is to find out how they touch each other and then find a way to block that interaction.

Harris said it's a novel approach and he expects the research will lead to the development of therapeutic drugs.

"Because we're pretty early in the field, those drugs haven't come yet," Harris said. "But I am 99.99 percent certain they're going to come and they're going to come within the next decade and for sure within my lifetime."

The research will help fight other viral diseases like Hepatitis B and a rare form of cancer called T-cell leukemia.

The $10 million grant will be spread out over five years.

The University of Minnesota will collaborate with research teams at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, the University of Nebraska and Hebrew University in Israel. However, University of Minnesota officials say about half the grant will remain in Minnesota.