Jan. 7, 2011

Venigalla Rao

Venigalla Rao, chairman and professor of the Department of Biology, has been awarded $100,000 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to design a new vaccine against the virus that causes AIDS.

"This is an exceptional recognition of the international significance of Professor Rao's research, from one of the most innovative and competitive foundations operating today," says L.R. Poos, dean of CUA's School of Arts and Sciences.

Rao, who also serves as the director of CUA's Center for Advanced Training in Cell and Molecular Biology, is a recognized expert on viruses and associated applications such as vaccine development. The award will enable him to turn his many years of research into an approach to making people resistant to pathogen infections such as the human immunodeficiency virus, or HIV.

"This is a very good opportunity to build a powerful vaccine that incorporates both DNA and protein into the same vaccine," says Rao. "It's something our team of scientists at CUA has always aspired to do, and it's a novel, out-of-the box idea that the Gates Foundation is excited about."

The key player in Rao's research is a benign virus called bacteriophage T4. Its value lies in its structural malleability, which allows researchers to manipulate it genetically.

Covering the surface of this virus are numerous microscopic knobs, some of which look like the sharp spines or quills on a porcupine. Rao's goal is to push pieces of HIV DNA into the bacteriophage T4's outer shell or capsid. His vehicle is a powerful packaging motor driven by fuel molecules known as adenosine triphosphate, or ATP.

The HIV proteins can then be attached onto the knobs, an approach that Rao recently developed in his lab at CUA using recombinant DNA technology. The result is a specially prepared bacteriophage T4.

Rao believes that once injected into a person, bacteriophage T4 would be recognized as a foreign particle. The body, to counter an HIV infection, would trigger production of antibodies. In essence, a person's immune system would be primed to attack the harmful virus without actually being infected by it.

Rao has been a CUA faculty member for more than 21 years. His earlier research focused on determining how the DNA packaging motor packs its own genome into the virus' outer shell and developing ways to attach pathogen proteins to the surface knobs of the virus. His twin research interests, he adds, led him toward his new project of developing a powerful vaccine platform against HIV.

He plans to apply to the Gates Foundation for a second installment of the grant.

The Seattle-based Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the world's largest philanthropic organization, works to improve global health, education, and nutrition. Rao's grant was one of 67 awarded as part of a five-year, $100 million initiative to help scientists find new ways to boost health in developing countries.