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ASHA grant funds cutting-edge AIDS research at Tel Aviv University

Acquired Immune Deficiency Syndrome (AIDS) is one of the largest public health crises of our time. According to the Foundation for AIDS Research, more than 34 million people worldwide are currently living with Human Immunodeficiency Virus (HIV) or AIDS, and 3.4 million of them are children under the age of 15.

Now, with generous funding from the American Schools and Hospitals Abroad (ASHA) program, part of the U. S. Agency for International Development (USAID), Tel Aviv University has fully equipped a bio-safety lab dedicated to researching the virus and developing potential therapies, novel diagnostics, and vaccines. Twenty five scientists across 12 departments and two faculties, including the Sackler Faculty of Medicine and the George S. Wise Faculty of Life Sciences have come together to work on this project.

"ASHA funding has allowed us to build a special facility where we can work with viruses and pathogenic bacteria in a safe manner, using state-of-the-art equipment, while complying with U.S. standards and regulations for this type of research," says Prof. Karen Avraham, the Co-Director of the grant and a U,S.-trained researcher who obtained her undergraduate degree from Washington University, performed post-doctoral training at the National Cancer Institute in Maryland and a sabbatical at the Harvard Medical School.

USAID is a United States-based organization that is dedicated to promoting shared economic prosperity; strengthening democracy and good governance; improving global health, food security, environmental sustainability and education; helping societies prevent and recover from conflicts; and providing humanitarian assistance in the wake of disasters. Its ASHA program works to provide grants to non-profit universities, secondary schools, libraries, and medical centers abroad, providing the benefits of American education and medical care, and promoting good relations with the United States.

Providing the tools for AIDS research

TAU's ASHA grant is already going a long way towards helping us to understand fundamental steps of HIV/AIDS infection, and how it interacts with its host and impacts the populations it affects. "In order to design novel drugs or preventive vaccines we need to understand the mechanisms of this disease what makes HIV tick," explains Prof. Jonathan Gershoni, Co-Director of the grant, who completed his post-doctoral training at Yale School of Medicine and spent an extended sabbatical at America's National Institutes of Health with Dr. Robert Gallo co-discoverer of the AIDS virus. "The support from ASHA is making this goal a reality," Gershoni said.

Researchers are currently studying every facet of HIV/AIDS, including how the virus targets specific cells and replicates, each step in the virus life cycle, new opportunities for novel drug development, and understanding the interplay between the virus and its host cell and the immune response it stimulates. The ASHA project also includes research on HIV co-infections with fungal disease and other devastating viral infections such as hepatitis.

In addition to the facility to safely study viruses, ASHA has provided advanced equipment to be used by all the scientists involved in the project. "In order to answer these crucial questions, we need the latest technological tools," says Prof. Gershoni. Nicknamed the "lab without walls" among the researchers, the equipment provided is distributed among all scientists involved in this truly collaborative effort.

Helping those in need

The project embodies many of USAID and ASHA's core values, which seek to aid developing countries with economic and health challenges. Although HIV/AIDS is a worldwide crisis, it takes a particularly heavy toll on Sub-Saharan Africa, a region that encompasses approximately two thirds of the world's HIV-infected population. More than a health concern, HIV/AIDS is causing economic devastation in this already poor region through factors such as ongoing health care costs and a dwindling work force.

Through their work, the team of scientists at TAU aims to care for those in need, using U.S. knowledge and health care standards. Their work is inspired by American institutions, including the National Institutes of Health, using American manufactured equipment, notes Prof. Avraham.

Contact: George Hunka
American Friends of Tel Aviv University

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