Benjamin Chen, MD, PhD, Wins NIDA 2009 Avant-Garde Award for Innovative HIV-AIDS Research

The National Institute on Drug Abuse honored Dr. Chen for his work developing a method for visually tracking HIV virus particles from cell to cell.

New York, NY
 – September 24, 2009 /Press Release/  –– 

Benjamin Chen, MD, PhD, Assistant Professor of Medicine, Infectious Diseases, at Mount Sinai School of Medicine has been named as one of four scientists to win this year’s Avant-Garde Award for HIV/AIDS research, the National Institute on Drug Abuse (NIDA), part of the National Institutes of Health, announced this week.

The annual competition, now in its second year, is intended to stimulate high-impact research that may lead to groundbreaking opportunities for the prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS in drug abusers. Winning scientists receive $500,000 per year for five years to support their research, plus associated facility and administrative costs.

Dr. Chen was honored for developing methodology that enables visualization of fluorescently tagged HIV virus particles, which may answer long-standing questions about cell-to-cell mechanisms of viral transmission. His work contributes to the understanding of the first events that occur following HIV transmission.

In order to make the HIV virus visible to track from cell to cell, he created a molecular clone of infectious HIV that contains green fluorescent jellyfish protein. Then, with a team at UC Davis, quantitative, high-speed 3D video microscopy was used to record both viral particle formation and transmission of the HIV virus between T cells.

The resulting images and videos show that, once an infected cell adheres to a healthy cell, the HIV proteins migrate within minutes to the contact site. At that point, large packets of virus are simultaneously released by the infected cell and internalized by the recipient cell. This efficient mode of transfer is a distinct pathway from the cell-free infection that has been the focus of most prior HIV studies, and reveals another mechanism by which the virus evades immune responses that can neutralize free virus particles within the body.

We found that the transfer of HIV is highly coordinated between T cells, and that the transfer is rapid and massive, said Dr. Chen. "Future efforts to block HIV transmission may be designed to specifically exploit and block this cell-to-cell mode of infection."

The Avant-Garde Awards are modeled after the NIH Pioneer Awards and are granted to scientists of exceptional creativity who propose high-impact research that will open new avenues for prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS among drug abusers. "By supporting bold investigators with unexplored ideas, we hope we can find new approaches to eradicating the terrible public health toll of HIV/AIDS," said NIH Director Francis Collins.

"This year’s Avant-Garde recipients proposed some especially exciting research directions," said NIDA Director Nora D. Volkow, who announced the awards. "These studies of fundamental processes in HIV infection should move us ahead by leaps and bounds in our efforts to find solutions to HIV/AIDS."  

The Avant-Garde Awardees were selected from 39 applicants whose proposals reflect diverse scientific disciplines and approaches to HIV/AIDS research. NIDA’s HIV/AIDS Research Program supports a multidisciplinary portfolio that investigates the role of drug use and its related behaviors in the evolving dynamics of HIV/AIDS epidemiology, natural history/pathogenesis, treatment, and prevention.

For further information about the Avant-Garde Award, see the NIDA Avant-Garde Award Web site at drugabuse.gov/avgp.html.

About The Mount Sinai Medical Center
The Mount Sinai Medical Center encompasses The Mount Sinai Hospital and Mount Sinai School of Medicine. The Mount Sinai Hospital is one of the nation’s oldest, largest and most-respected voluntary hospitals. Founded in 1852, Mount Sinai today is a 1,171-bed tertiary-care teaching facility that is internationally acclaimed for excellence in clinical care. Last year, nearly 50,000 people were treated at Mount Sinai as inpatients, and there were nearly 450,000 outpatient visits to the Medical Center.

Mount Sinai School of Medicine is internationally recognized as a leader in groundbreaking clinical and basic-science research, as well as having an innovative approach to medical education. With a faculty of more than 3,400 in 38 clinical and basic science departments and centers, Mount Sinai ranks among the top 20 medical schools in receipt of National Institute of Health (NIH) grants.