MU professor awarded $3.4 million grant to research HIV

Professor Stefan Sarafianos brings 20 years of experience to the project.
Stefan Sarafianos, an MU joint associate professor of biochemistry, works with post-doctoral fellow Lefteris Michailidis on Monday in Bond Life Sciences Center. Sarafianos was awarded a $3.4 million five-year grant for his research to stop a genetic mutation that allows HIV to evade potential treatments.

An MU professor was awarded a $3.4 million five-year grant for his research to stop a genetic mutation that allows HIV to evade potential treatments.

Stefan Sarafianos, associate professor of molecular microbiology and immunology, said he plans to use the funding to develop a chemical inhibitor designed to target the HIV enzyme RNase H. The enzyme allows the HIV virus to grow through DNA replication.

The RNase H project is a different approach and a totally new target, Sarafianos said.

Sarafianos, who has studied the virus since 1993, is working with University of Pittsburg virologist Michael Parniak and University of Minnesota medicinal chemist Zhengqiang Wang on the project.

Sarafianos is working on mapping the structure of RNase H, while Wang is designing the chemical compound of the inhibitor, and Parniak is evaluating how the compounds interact with the structure.

"A number of people have looked at RNase H and have been unsuccessful," said Tony Conley, the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases liaison for the project. "Dr. Sarafianos' specialty is in structural biology. He has very good skills and talents to define structure and develop inhibitors.”

NIAID, a branch of the National Institute of Health, awarded the grant. The NIH is made up of 27 institutes and centers each with a separate research agenda, according to the NIH website.

Grant applications from the NIH go through a two-step peer review process to assess scientific merit, according to the NIH website. Two groups of non-federal scientists with relevant research interests and expertise must both recommend the application before funding can be awarded.

The NIH institutes and centers make decisions about funding based on research priorities, according to the NIH website. The NIAID considers funding HIV research a top priority and currently funds hundreds of active research projects, Conley said.

"It would be nice if we knew more about RNase so we could inhibit it," Conley said.

Sarafianos began studying HIV in 1993 because there were a lot of unanswered questions and challenges concerning the virus, he said.

"Twenty years later — my gosh, there is still so much to do,” Sarafianos said.

In 2010 he discovered the N348I mutation, which causes the HIV to resist treatment.

HIV research has led to the development of inhibitors for three other HIV enzymes, Conley said.

Sarafianos worked with Parniak to develop the EFda drug, an extremely potent inhibitor of HIV reverse transcriptase that prevents the virus from copying itself. This drug is undergoing clinical trials.

Sarafianos said he never gets bored of HIV research.

"It's an enigma wrapped in a riddle," Sarafianos said.

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