NIH grants $1.6 million to UND scientists for study of HIV-1/AIDS neurological complications

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School of Medicine & Health Sciences


GRAND FORKS, N.D.—The National Institutes of Health granted $1.6 million to Chester Fritz Distinguished Professor Jonathan Geiger, Ph.D., and his colleague and collaborator Assistant Professor Xuesong Chen, M.D., Ph.D., in the Department of Basic Sciences at the University of North Dakota School of Medicine and Health Sciences. The five-year R01 grant from the NIH's National Institute of Mental Health funds research on some very new, novel and potentially important mechanisms that control levels of intracellular calcium in neurons that may explain neurological complications associated with HIV-1/AIDS.

"It is a real achievement indeed to receive such an R01 grant from the NIH because only about 1 in 10 currently is being funded," said Malak Kotb, Ph.D., the chair of the Department of Basic Sciences at the UND SMHS.

For over 20 years, the Geiger laboratory has been studying neurological complications associated with HIV-1 infection, specifically HIV-1 associated neurocognitive disorders or HAND. Geiger's team has been working on studies aimed at determining the effects of HIV-1 proteins on neurons with a special focus on the involvement of intracellular calcium, a universally important signaling molecule.

"We were the first group in the world to show that one of the earliest effects of exposure of neurons to the HIV-1 protein Tat is the release of calcium from specific stores of calcium in intracellular organelles known as endoplasmic reticulum and that this calcium release can lead to neuronal cell death," Geiger said. "We are now showing that there is an earlier event: release of calcium from other intracellular organelles known as endosomes and lysosomes. We have also shown that this release of calcium can cause a profound influx of extracellular calcium into the neurons by a never-before identified mechanism." Thus the effects of HIV-1 proteins are being amplified inside of neurons, and this might help explain neurological complications associated with HIV-1/AIDS.

"The study of HIV-1 associated neurocognitive disorders is particularly significant because about half of all people living with HIV-1/AIDS suffer from HAND with learning and memory issues similar to those experienced by people with Alzheimer's disease," Geiger said.

This grant will allow key members of Geiger's research group—including post-doctoral fellows Drs. Liang Hui and Mahmoud Soliman; second-year medical students Adam Nygard and Cole Laber; and undergraduate students Nick Geiger and Marisa Eastman—to continue to conduct these very exciting and potentially important studies.

The NIH has long recognized the work of Geiger, who is the principal investigator for the UND Center of Biomedical Research Excellence or COBRE (pronounced "KOH-bree") for Neurodegenerative Disorder Research, which was originally funded in 2002. Funding for the Neurodegenerative Disorder Research COBRE has been renewed twice, most recently in 2012. By 2017, NIH grants to this COBRE will have provided investigators at UND with over $25 million.

The COBRE for Neurodegenerative Disorder Research seeks to answer questions about neurodegenerative diseases that loom large in health care, such as Alzheimer's disease, Parkinson's disease, neurological complications associated with HIV-1 infection, multiple sclerosis, and seizure disorders. Causes of these diseases are complex, so the COBRE's cadre of investigators are drawn from all the medical research disciplines at the SMHS. Translating their discoveries into treatments—"from lab bench to bedside"—is a crucial part of their work.

A part of the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, the NIH is the nation's medical research agency. The NIH is the largest source of funding for medical research in the world. The mission of the NIH is to seek fundamental knowledge about the nature and behavior of living systems and the application of that knowledge to enhance health, lengthen life, and reduce illness and disability.