Sept. 7, 2012

The Catholic University of America is among 14 research organizations awarded grant funding to identify new approaches to designing a safe and effective HIV vaccine. Venigalla Rao, professor and chairman in the Department of Biology, has received $413,786 for the first year of a four-year project, "Potent Phage T4 Derived V2 Immunogens as HIV Vaccines." Over the span of the project, the grant will provide a total of $1,668,972 to support Rao's project.

"Developing an efficacious preventative HIV vaccine is one of the biggest challenges of our time," says Rao. "We would like to understand how the virus and host cells communicate during HIV transmission and try to develop a vaccine that can block this interaction. One of the targets is a small piece of HIV envelope, known as the variable loop V2, which seems to make the initial contact with the host."

Rao, who is also director of Catholic University's Center for Advanced Training in Cell and Molecular Biology, is a leading expert on viruses and associated applications such as vaccine development.

The 14 grants totaling $7.8 million in first-year funding come from the Innovation for HIV Vaccine Discovery initiative by the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases (NIAID), which is part of the National Institutes of Health (NIH).

"Recent discoveries in HIV pathogenesis and how the virus adapts to its host have provided useful information and new opportunities to guide vaccine development," said NIAID Director Anthony S. Fauci, in announcing the grant awards. "These grants are designed to build on that information and stimulate discovery of new ways to design a robust vaccine that prevents acquisition and establishment of latent infection."

Rao has been a faculty member at CUA for 23 years. A key focus of his 32-year research career is a benign virus called bacteriophage T4. The surface of this virus is covered with tiny knobs. Through his research, Rao has been able to attach parts the HIV virus to these knobs and decorate T4's outer shell with HIV molecules. He is also trying to push pieces of HIV DNA into the bacteriophage T4's outer shell using the motor driven by fuel molecules called adenosine triphosphate, or ATP.

Rao's research leads to the conclusion that when such a specially prepared bacteriophage T4 is injected into a person, it would be recognized as a foreign particle and the person's immune system would trigger production of antibodies to attack the harmful virus.

Rao's cutting-edge research has been funded with millions of dollars in grants over the years. His virus motor work has been funded with major grants by the National Science Foundation, and the vaccine work by the NIAID, including a $2.5 million grant in 2009 to develop a single vaccine against both anthrax and pneumonic plague. And in late 2010, he was awarded $100,000 from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation as part of a global initiative to design a novel T4 vaccine platform against HIV and other infectious diseases.

Rao believes in collaboration as a key to effective research, starting with his own CUA team, which he says participate actively in his studies. On the most recent NIAID award, he credits senior graduate student Guofen Gao, who "contributed substantially to prepare this grant."

He also collaborates beyond the University to bring about new findings to halt the threat of major viruses, in particular joining forces with researchers at the Henry Jackson Foundation and Walter Reed Army Institute of Research, both of whom are partners in the current HIV vaccine project.

In addition to Catholic University, the 14 Innovation for HIV Vaccine Discovery grant recipients are Altravex, Inc., Dartmouth College, Duke University, Harvard Medical School, Massachusetts General Hospital, New York University Langone Medical Center, University of California - Irvine, University of Maryland, University of Medicine and Dentistry of New Jersey, University of Minnesota, University of North Carolina, University of Rochester, and University of Texas - El Paso.