UNMC pharmacy dean part of groundbreaking HIV research study

Teams with University of Minnesota researchers to better understand workings of HIV drugs

Drugs used to treat HIV penetrate poorly into lymphatic tissues where most HIV replication takes place, and there is persistent low-level virus replication in these tissues according to research from the University of Minnesota and University of Nebraska Medical Center.

The results appear in the latest issue of the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS).

“We know the drugs we use today are effective because HIV-infected persons are doing better and living longer, but these drugs cannot cure the infection,” said Courtney Fletcher, Pharm.D., the first author of the PNAS paper and dean of the College of Pharmacy at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. “We wanted to know why and thought that maybe the drugs were not getting into the tissues where most virus replication is happening.”

Dr. Fletcher joined a team with Timothy Schacker, M.D., director of the Program in HIV Medicine at the University of Minnesota and Ashley Haase, M.D., Regents’ Professor and Head of Microbiology at the University of Minnesota, to measure drug levels and find the impact on HIV-1 replication in those tissues.

“These are very complex questions requiring expertise from many disciplines to get the data required to understand what is going on,” Dr. Schacker said. “This is a great example of the kind of team science we need to make progress in curing this disease.”  

Dr. Schacker, the principal investigator of the project, assembled a cohort of patients and started them on antiretroviral therapy.  He collected lymph nodes and gut samples from these patients at frequent intervals. 

Dr. Fletcher used highly specialized and sensitive methods, developed in his laboratory, for measuring drug levels inside cells obtained from lymph nodes and gut tissues.

“The common approach of looking at drug concentrations in plasma may provide misleading information,” Dr. Fletcher said. “What is most important to understand is the concentration of a drug actually inside an HIV-infected cell in the compartments where most of the virus is actually produced.

“What we found, in studies conducted during six months of therapy in 12 HIV-infected persons receiving combinations of five of the most commonly used drugs to treat HIV infection was that concentrations inside the cells from lymph tissues were surprisingly low compared with blood.”

Dr. Haase then used sensitive methods to precisely measure the amount and location of virus in the lymph node and gut tissues and found the virus continued to replicate in the tissues, even when it was undetectable in blood.

“Most HIV replicates in the lymph and gut tissues and that’s where we need to look to understand the efficacy of these drugs,” Dr. Haase said. “The ongoing replication we found in the lymph and gut tissues we tested directly correlated with the drug levels found there.

“This persistent low-level replication may be one cause of the chronic immune activation we find in these patients, and is likely an important factor in accelerated aging, increased cardiovascular events and early mortality common in these patients.”

Drs. Schacker, Fletcher, Haase and their collaborators are now working on a comprehensive survey of all available anti-retroviral drugs in an effort to identify a combination of drugs that will provide maximum penetration into lymph nodes and more effectively stop virus replication. 

“We will not cure this disease until we can completely suppress virus replication,” Dr. Schacker said.

Funding for this research project was provided in part by the National Institutes of Health grants AI074340 and AI028433.

The College of Pharmacy at the University of Nebraska Medical Center is one of the nation’s outstanding institutions for pharmacy education and research, with its graduates advancing drug discovery, delivery and therapeutics and influencing the quality of health care in communities across Nebraska and the U.S.  Visit www.unmc.edu/pharmacy to learn more. 

The University of Minnesota Medical School, with its two campuses in the Twin Cities and Duluth, is a leading educator of the next generation of physicians. Our graduates and the school's 3,800 faculty physicians and scientists advance patient care, discover biomedical research breakthroughs with more than $180 million in sponsored research annually, and enhance health through world-class patient care for the state of Minnesota and beyond. Visit www.med.umn.edu to learn more.

Through world-class research and patient care, UNMC generates breakthroughs that make life better for people throughout Nebraska and beyond. Its education programs train more health professionals than any other institution in the state. Learn more at unmc.edu and follow us on social media.

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