Human Cells
Human cells (bordered in blue) contain autophagosomes (pink dots within the cells) that improve cells' ability to clean themselves of unwanted material, like HIV.

Federal Drug Administration-approved compounds found in some over the counter medications could hold the key to curing HIV, according to UNM Researcher Vojo Deretic, Ph.D., professor and chair of UNM’s Molecular Genetics and Microbiology Department.

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Exploration Funding agrees, and has granted Deretic and his department team $1 million and two years to find out.

The team will be applying a naturally occurring human immunity process known as autophagy to screen specific, commercially available compounds – and combinations of compounds – to determine their effects on HIV cells in the body. The Gates’ goal is to identify inexpensive, approved products that can quickly be introduced in third-world countries to battle HIV.

The molecular process known as autophagy uses the human body’s built-in immune system to prevent infectious diseases.

Within each of our highly adaptive and complex bodies, there are processes at the molecular level that maintain the cellular landscape, Deretic asserts. These processes ensure that exhausted proteins and invading micro-organisms are properly gathered and disposed of, making room for new cells. This human autophagy, or "self-eating" system, helps to regulate which cells live and die.

Autophagy also acts as a defense against harmful viruses and bacteria.

"We were funded two years ago by the Gates Foundation to develop the feasibility of applying autophagy to HIV," explains Deretic. "Now we have the opportunity to screen for drugs that can intercept the virus at several stages using this process."

Deretic’s team for this project included Molecular Genetics and Microbiology Department members Manohar Pilli, John Arko-Mensah, Michal Mudd, Michael Mandell, Mark Carter and Steven Bradfute. Other team members include Dr. Larry Sklar with UNM’s Center for Molecular Discovery, Biochemist Stephen Matheas and Vincent Piguet from the United Kingdom.

More information on Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Grand Challenges Exploration Funding.

More information on the UNM’s Molecular Genetics and Microbiology Department.