UNC and Cell Microsystems receive NIH Phase I SBIR contract to develop HIV diagnostic assay

The University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill HIV Cure Center and Cell Microsystems, a provider of innovative tools and scalable solutions for the sorting and isolation of single cells, announced they have received an approximately $283,000, 12-month Phase I Small Business Innovation and Research (SBIR) contract from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to develop an automated platform to quantify the latent HIV reservoir.

"We need to automate and streamline the measurement of the HIV reservoir because it is critical to showing if our therapies for eradicating the virus are working," said Edward P. Browne, Ph.D., an assistant professor of medicine in the UNC Division of Infectious Diseases and the UNC HIV Cure Center.

The ability of HIV to hide in the body in a dormant state is a major challenge to curing the 37 million people living with the virus worldwide. The so-called "shock and kill" approach to curing HIV would require new therapeutics that reverse HIV latency, so that cells harboring the virus can be identified as infected and ultimately destroyed. As researchers develop therapies to reverse latency as a step toward subsequently clearing the virus, an accompanying diagnostic test is also required to accurately measure the viral reservoir to judge the efficacy of new latency reversal agents.

Browne applied for the NIH Phase I SBIR contract in collaboration with Cell Microsystems's Nick Trotta, Ph.D., the director of product applications and market development, and Steve Gebhart, Ph.D., director of engineering and the program's principal investigator.

Cell Microsystems's proprietary products, the CytoSort™ Array and CellRaft AIR™ System, will use automated image analysis to screen and isolate thousands of patient-derived cells in order to detect emergence of HIV after exposure to potential therapeutics. The platform is likely to offer a rapid means of testing new drugs for latency reversal in vitro, as well as evaluating the efficacy of latency reversal therapeutics in patients during clinical trials or sustained therapy.

"We are very excited the CellRaft Technology will be utilized by a world-class team of investigators toward a historically intractable problem," said Trotta. "As we talk to more HIV investigators, it's clear that the platform has a lot of advantages that uniquely address the latency reversal drug screening process. We are also eager to contribute our genomics capabilities to better understand the precursors of HIV latency reversal."

If the device can accurately quantify the viral reservoir, Browne said the team will apply for Phase II funding to explore the project's commercial and scientific viability.

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