AIDS Researcher Joins Donors on the Trail

Posted: September 28, 2009 at 1:03 am, Last Updated: September 25, 2009 at 3:24 pm

By Marjorie Musick

Yuntao Wu

Yuntao Wu joined the NYCDC AIDS Research Ride this year. Photo courtesy of Yuntao Wu

Yuntao Wu, professor of molecular and microbiology in the College of Science, has worked around the clock in his fight against AIDS. Two weeks ago, he went even further, bicycling 330 miles to raise money to fund his research.

For the second consecutive year, Wu was selected as the sole recipient of the NYCDC AIDS Research Ride proceeds. Last year, the riders raised approximately $100,000 for Wu’s lab. This year, the number of riders almost doubled, along with the amount of money raised.

“I try to let them feel that they’re not alone, and we’re not alone. We’re a team working together for a common goal, which is fighting HIV and finding a cure,” says Wu.

In addition to joining the NYCDC AIDS Research Ride participants on the trail, Wu has spent a great deal of time educating the ride’s donors about the work that they’re helping to support.

“Some of the riders have HIV, and we all have lost friends or partners to AIDS, so it was also very cool to have them tell their stories to Dr. Wu and his lab team, who don’t get that contact in their lab,” says Marty Rosen, director of the NYCDC AIDS Research Ride.

“The Mason team left the ride understanding just how much we are counting on their research, and my HIV-positive riders went home with hope.”

In May, Wu hosted ride participants for two half-day tours of his lab. For some of the riders, the visit was their first exposure to real science. This one-on-one time with the donors allowed Wu to explain how their money translates into research. For example, the 2008 NYCDC AIDS Research Ride proceeds supported a postdoctoral position in Wu’s lab that enabled the lab to submit a manuscript to the journal Gene Therapy this year.

“A lot of the riders were very excited when they were here. Some of them had never seen an infected cell. They didn’t understand how the research was conducted. I explained how the research works and how discovery can lead to new treatments,” says Wu.

In early June, some of the Washington, D.C.-based riders invited Wu to speak at a weekly meeting held in their homes.

“They particularly asked me to go there to give them an education. By the end, they just told me that everyone in the room was HIV positive. By talking with them, I feel the urgency for the scientific community to find a cure,” says Wu.

Many people may not realize how expensive AIDS research is. According to Wu, it costs approximately $200,000 to $300,000 per year to staff and run his 10-person lab. In these challenging economic times, he points out that researchers need to get creative in how they finance their research. Private fund-raising events like the NYCDC AIDS Research Ride are more important than ever.

Yuntao Wu in foreground with other riders during a stop on their trip. Photo courtesy of Yuntao Wu

Wu with members of the "Puget Sound raiders" from Seattle during a stop on their trip. Photo courtesy of Yuntao Wu

“My lab is slightly different from most HIV labs because we exclusively study HIV infection of blood T-cells. Acquiring this material is very expensive. It usually costs a few hundred dollars just to get cells from one donor to study, and we study hundreds of donors each year. Right now, funding is still an inhibiting factor,” says Wu.

A major source of support for Wu’s research comes from National Institutes of Health (NIH) grants. The application process is writing-intensive, and Wu submits at least three each year. However, he is extremely grateful for every grant that he is awarded, as it brings him closer to his goal of finding a new treatment for HIV.

This year, Wu has been very fortunate: He was recently awarded an NIH grant worth $1.26 million if fully funded over four years.

“Because of the economic downturn, funding is very tough and competitive. You have to be in the top 10 percent, and many good research proposals have no chance to be funded. We are very lucky to get acknowledgement from my colleagues in the HIV research community in the form of grants. The key is to not get discouraged. You have to have persistence. Eventually, your program will be successful,” says Wu.

Wu’s team published eight articles in the past two years, including a groundbreaking article in the prestigious bioscience journal Cell in 2008. Two articles are pending publication. One describes a new way of treating HIV-infected cells using an HIV-based particle that can cause the death of HIV-infected cells. The other describes Wu’s finding that a surface protein of the HIV virus is still capable of sending signals into human T-cells even when the cell is not fully infected. Wu’s team discovered that this signaling process helps the virus to infect T-cells and is proposing that the signaling process may cause blood T-cell dysfunctions seen in HIV patients.

“The virus usually has to insert the genome into the human genome in order to have a life cycle. So even if it has a half life cycle, it can still impact the cell. One of our goals is to inhibit the virus early in the process and see how that inhibits the virus. This finding gives us a new understanding of how the virus initially interacts with cells,” says Wu.

To support the ride, visit www.nycdc.org.

Write to mediarel at gazette@gmu.edu