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University of Otago receives Grand Challenges Explorations funding

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Tuesday 8 November 2011 11:57am

The University of Otago announced today that it will receive funding through Grand Challenges Explorations, an initiative created by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation that enables researchers worldwide to test unorthodox ideas that address persistent health and development challenges. Associate Professor Russell Poulter of the Department of Biochemistry will pursue an innovative global health research project, titled “Activation of latent HIV by cyclic analogues of Tat”.

Grand Challenges Explorations funds scientists and researchers worldwide to explore ideas that can break the mould in how we solve persistent global health and development challenges. Associate Professor Poulter’s project is one of 110 Grand Challenges Explorations grants announced today.

“We believe in the power of innovation—that a single bold idea can pioneer solutions to our greatest health and development challenges,” said Chris Wilson, Director of Global Health Discovery for the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. “Grand Challenges Explorations seeks to identify and fund these new ideas wherever they come from, allowing scientists, innovators and entrepreneurs to pursue the kinds of creative ideas and novel approaches that could help to accelerate the end of polio, cure HIV infection or improve sanitation.”

Projects that are receiving funding show promise in tackling priority global health issues where solutions do not yet exist. This includes finding effective methods to eliminate or control infectious diseases such as polio and HIV as well as discovering new sanitation technologies.

To learn more about Grand Challenges Explorations, visit

A team led by Associate Professor Poulter will use the US$100,000 of funding to pursue a new approach towards a cure for HIV; one which involves attempting to kick-start ‘sleeping’ HIV infected-cells into activity so they then can be destroyed en masse by anti-retroviral drugs.

Currently, the existence of the reservoir of latently HIV-infected cells requires that patients take expensive and often unpleasant anti-retrovirals for the rest of their lives to attack these cells as they become active. Any interruption of this treatment can allow the virus to make a rapid comeback.

In an effort to move away from this current focus on suppressing HIV towards one of curing it, Associate Professor Poulter and departmental colleagues including Dr Margaret Butler and Dr Sigurd Wilbanks aim to synthesise a more stable version of a crucial HIV protein known as Tat. Associate Professor Poulter says that in latently-infected cells the virus only becomes active after Tat levels reach a certain concentration.

“Tat is prone to being rapidly degraded by normal cellular mechanisms. This inherent instability is partly why people with HIV have this ‘fifth column’ of infected yet inactive cells lurking in their bodies. We will synthesise sturdier versions of Tat that can resist degradation and test their ability to wake up latently infected cells. Our hope is that this will lead to a therapy wherein Tat is administered to patients to drain their latent HIV reservoirs while anti-retroviral treatment finishes off the now actively infected cells,” he says.

This is the second Grand Challenges Explorations grant that Associate Professor Poulter has received for HIV-related research. Earlier this year, he received funding for a project involving developing a way to target and slice viral DNA in latently infected cells while leaving the cell’s own DNA intact.

About Grand Challenges Explorations

Grand Challenges Explorations is a US$100 million initiative funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Launched in 2008, Grand Challenge Explorations grants have already been awarded to nearly 500 researchers from over 40 countries. The grant program is open to anyone from any discipline and from any organization. The initiative uses an agile, accelerated grant-making process with short, two-page online applications and no preliminary data required. Initial grants of $100,000 are awarded two times a year. Successful projects have an opportunity to receive a follow-on grant of up to US$1 million.

For more information, contact

Associate Professor Russell Poulter
Department of Biochemistry
Tel 64 3 479 7856

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