GW Researchers Awarded $3 Million to Study HIV Testing, Diet and Aging

Faculty members received national grants this summer that will allow them to continue groundbreaking research.

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August 26, 2016

By Kristen Mitchell

George Washington University researchers studying in a range of fields were awarded major grants this summer to continue innovative research in fighting HIV, the study of aging and public health and preventing female genital mutilation.

Four of the top awards added up to nearly $3 million in funds to support  researchers in the Columbian College of Arts and Sciences, School of Medicine and Health Sciences and the Milken Institute School of Public Health.

Drawing Associations Between a Healthy Diet and Aging
SPH associate professor Sameera Talegawkar was awarded a $885,659 grant from the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute on Aging to study the relationship between adherence to suggested dietary guidelines and the health of aging people.

As the average lifespan has increased, prevention and treatment for chronic diseases and disabilities are a top public health priority, said Dr. Talegawkar. Federal dietary guidelines aim to give people a path toward a long and healthy life, but whether and to what extent following a recommended diet as an adult impacts age-related declines in physical function disability and mortality is unknown.

By using the 2010 Healthy Eating Index, Dr. Talegawkar plans to conduct a study of already existing data to characterize dietary pattern trajectories, determine whether those trajectories are associated with age-related changes and are a risk factor for mortality.

The study will be conducted with the NIA-supported Baltimore Longitudinal Study of Aging, the longest running scientific study of human aging in the U.S.

Using T-Cell-Mediated Therapies to Target HIV Reservoirs
SMHS associate professor Richard Bradley Jones received $835,785 from the Massachusetts Institute of Technology to develop a new way to target HIV reservoirs with T-cells. Dr. Jones hopes to combat inflammation that can lead to additional health complications by adding medication to killer T-cells in the body to suppress HIV.

The T-cells target natural sanctuary sites in the body where the virus cannot be eradicated, Dr. Jones said. Those reservoirs cause inflammation that can increase the risk for certain types of cancer and heart disease.

“If we reduce this inflammation in people who are on medication, we can improve their health even further, even if they have to continue taking daily medication,” he said.

The method of using T-cells to deliver HIV medication has not been previously studied, Dr. Jones said. He will work alongside MIT’s Darrell Irvine on the research.

Developing a Community-Centered Approach to Preventing Female Genital Cutting
SPH associate professor Karen McDonnell was awarded $615,923 by the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services Office on Women’s Health to develop a toolkit to help medical professionals become more aware of female genital cutting. With better education health professionals can develop routines that might help prevent the practice as well as help survivors cope with the medical and emotional consequences.

Dr. McDonnell will work with community partners in the Washington, D.C., metro area to explore best practices for medical professionals and detail the physical and psychological effects of FGC. The research will also include collecting firsthand accounts from survivors.

“Part of this is demystifying, and you do that by setting up vernacular and communication,” she said.

Female genital cutting, which is a common cultural practice in some countries in the horn of Africa, is outlawed in the U.S. Some girls are taken on trips back to their home country where the cutting takes place, Dr. McDonnell said.

Researchers will interview 20 to 25 local FGC survivors as an early party of the project, Dr. McDonnell said, which will eventually be available online. The three-year grant is part of $6 million in federal funding to improve FGC-related medical care for women and girls in the U.S.

A Webnovela-based Intervention to Promote HIV Testing Among Colombian Men Who Have Sex With Men
Department of Psychology Professor Maria Cecilia Zea was awarded $594,827 to develop a webnovela to promote HIV testing among gay and bisexual men in Colombia, where rates of infection are at epidemic levels.

With the help of community members on the ground in Colombia, Dr. Zea will develop seven 13-minute episodes that follow the format of popular telenovela series. Over the next two years the team will develop the series and determine if the study group that watched it is more likely to be tested.

Stigma and fear of the results keep many gay men from getting regular testing for HIV infection, and it is only when they show AIDS symptoms that they receive testing. The infection rate hovers around 12.1 percent among gay men in Bogotá and it is higher in other cities in the Latin American country, Dr. Zea said.

Many men live with the infection for months or years before becoming aware of it and receiving any treatment, giving them time to unknowingly pass it on to others.

“The longer you live with untreated HIV the worse the outcomes are,” she said.