Pitt gets $11M in grants from Gates for HIV research

| Monday, Dec. 3, 2012, 12:01 a.m.

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has awarded more than $11 million to the University of Pittsburgh for four projects aimed at preventing the spread of HIV, including studying to see if birth control shots make women more susceptible to the virus.

“It's really exciting the Gates Foundation is supporting this research because it will give answers to women in America and across the world,” Sharon Hillier, professor of obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at Pitt, said on Sunday. “It's trying to unravel some of the mysteries that have popped up in the last year or so suggesting these (contraceptive methods) might be associated with increased susceptibility to HIV.”

HIV is the virus that causes AIDS.

Hillier is co-investigator for the birth control project, one of four funded by the Gates Foundation through Pitt's Schools of the Health Sciences and Magee-Womens Research Institute.

Hillier said some studies suggest birth control shots such as Depo-Provera give women so much of the hormone progesterone that it damages their reproductive tract, making them vulnerable to HIV.

“It may be a sledge hammer when you need a tack hammer,” Hillier said.

The Pitt project, which will receive $5 million from Gates over three years, will examine the impact of birth control injections on the cells of the genital tract, especially the immune cells that HIV targets. As part of the project, 250 healthy women in Zimbabwe will start the use of five commonly used contraceptives and will be monitored for six months.

The foundation is giving Pitt $4.5 million over two years to study the effectiveness and safety of injecting rilpivirine, a long-acting HIV drug, into the muscle of people who do not have HIV.

“This is the first study in the United States looking at long-acting, injectable drugs as a way of preventing HIV,” said Dr. Ian McGowan, professor of medicine and obstetrics, gynecology and reproductive sciences at Pitt.

He said Pitt will study how strong the drug is in humans at different intervals after it has been injected.

“Ideally, we would like it to be given once every three months,” he said. “If it's every month, it's asking a lot for people to come in.”

Citing figures from the World Health Organization, McGowan said 2.5 million people were infected with HIV last year, and 1.7 million people died of AIDS-related conditions.

The foundation also is giving Pitt's Graduate School of Public Health $1 million over three years and the School of Pharmacy $758,000 over 15 months.

The $1 million grant is to help develop a test to detect HIV at its earliest stage. Current tests rely on a few proteins made only by the HIV virus to detect anti-HIV antibodies in the blood. These antibodies are usually at low levels in new infections so that it often takes months before a person tests positive to the virus.

The new test will examine a novel class of biomarkers that will allow health workers to tell if the HIV infections are recent and how fast they are spreading.

The $758,000 grant will analyze whether certain anti-HIV drugs can be successfully manufactured and delivered in countries with limited resources and what they must be like for a large number of users to accept them.

Bill Zlatos is a staff writerfor Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 412-320-7828 or bzlatos@tribweb.com.

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