Microbiology Professor Receives $1.6 Million Grant for HIV Research

Research will investigate intercellular pathogens.

November 28, 2012

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Imtiaz A. Khan, a professor of microbiology, immunology and tropical medicine at the School of Medicine and Health Sciences, received a $1.6 million federal grant from the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases to study the effects of microsporidia—opportunistic intercellular pathogens—that cause illness and death in HIV patients.

Fifteen years ago, Dr. Khan recognized that infection by this type of pathogen was becoming a major problem in HIV populations. He realized little research existed about immune response to these pathogens. After studying the topic, he learned that CD8+ T cells—a type of white blood cell that kills other cells that are damaged or diseased—played a critical role in protecting against these pathogens.

His project, titled “CD8+ T Cell Effectors against Microsporidia,” will study how to prevent microsporidia from causing complications in immunocompromised patients by regulating the CD8+ T cells. These white blood cells, which haven’t been extensively studied, are tolerated and controlled in healthy people without compromised immune systems. But for the elderly or in people with HIV, these cells can cause problems. In order to stave off infection for the immunocompromised, CD8+ T cells need to be maintained and regenerated.

“The question is, how can you generate CD8 effectively, so this infection does not harm them?” Dr. Khan said. “Because CD8+ T cells are critical, how can you maintain a good CD8 cell population, so this group of pathogens doesn’t reemerge?” 

Dr. Khan and his research team will be using cytokines—small protein molecules that help cells communicate—and other therapeutic methods to generate highly functional CD8+ T cells. These T cells may help to create and maintain robust immunity against microsporidia pathogens, thus improving the prognosis and quality of life for many HIV patients.

This research may not only benefit those suffering from microspordia, but can be extended to other infections affecting HIV populations, as well, Dr. Khan said.