Philly high-schoolers helped with a new study of a possible treatment for HIV

Philadelphia high schoolers Tiffani Billups, left, and Amal Oubarri use pipettes at the Wistar Institute, where they contributed to a new study of a possible treatment for HIV. Wistar Institute/TNS

PHILADELPHIA — Tiffani Billups burst in the front door of her home in Southwest Philadelphia and cried out excitedly: “Mom! I’m working with HIV!”

The teenager quickly reassured her mother that she wasn’t working with an active form of the virus, but a genetically engineered version that was unable to cause an infection.

Yet Billups, now a senior at Carver Engineering and Science school, had nevertheless been conducting legitimate experiments at Philadelphia’s Wistar Institute, testing a potential new treatment for HIV. She was one of 12 city high schoolers who performed the tests in July 2022, following a group of Cheyney University students who had conducted a similar suite of experiments earlier that year.

The results of the students’ experiments were so useful that they have now been included in a new published study from the research center in West Philadelphia.

Both groups were part of Wistar programs aimed at increasing diversity in the biomedical sciences. Their success illustrates that achievement is often a matter of simply getting the chance, said Wistar faculty member Ian Tietjen, the study’s lead author.

“Anybody can be a scientist,” he said. “It doesn’t matter who you are. Right away, you can contribute to an HIV study.”

The students tested the effects of a plant-derived, anti-inflammatory compound called hopeaphenol, which was first identified in certain red wines two decades ago. The name does not come from the word hope, yet that’s a fitting coincidence, as scientists have tested the compound against a variety of ailments, including COVID, in hopes that it might be beneficial.

So far, its promise has been mostly limited to the laboratory. But in testing the compound against HIV, Tietjen and Wistar colleague Luis Montaner, the study’s senior author, think they might be onto something.

In the study, the Wistar scientists found the substance might be useful as part of a one-two punch against HIV, complementing antiviral drugs that already are in wide use.

To understand how, it helps to recall the property that makes HIV so insidious. The virus infects cells in the immune system, directly interfering with the body’s ability to fight it off (hence the name, human immunodeficiency virus).

Current drugs are effective at keeping the virus below detectable levels, blocking the virus whenever it awakens from a dormant state inside those infected immune cells. As a result, patients now live for decades with an infection that once was almost always fatal.

Yet even that low level of virus can be a strain on the patient’s immune system, resulting in chronic, low-grade inflammation that may contribute to heart disease, cancer, and other illnesses, Tietjen said.

That’s where hopeaphenol might help.

Whereas current drugs can block the virus only after it awakens from its dormant state, hopeaphenol seems to block its activity at an earlier stage, preventing the virus from activating, the study authors found.

Tietjen likens the fight to a homeowner battling an infestation of mice. Current drugs act only when the animals emerge from a mousehole, whereas hopeaphenol seems to keep them inside.

“If you could block every possible way for the mice to get out of wall into your house,” he said, “the mice just give up and go to sleep.”

In addition to showing that hopeaphenol kept the virus dormant inside infected T-cells, the scientists wanted to make sure that it did not interfere with the activity of other T-cells, which are needed to fight off other infections.

That was the task they set before the high schoolers and the students from Cheyney, a historically Black university.

The students measured the effect of hopeaphenol on two types of cytokines — chemical signals that the immune system uses to marshal its defenses. They found that while the compound interfered with one of these helpful signals, the other was largely unaffected — a good sign.

In other words, the initial experiments by Wistar scientists had found that the compound seemed to keep the virus in its dormant state inside T-cells. Then the students showed that the compound did not have the unwanted side effect of putting other T-cells to sleep, leaving at least one type of alarm signal “awake” to perform its function.

Billups, now a senior at Carver, was thrilled.

“It wasn’t like a classroom setting,” she said. “We were actually in a lab on the first day.”

The teenager’s father is an electrician and her mom works in the telecommunications industry, so she figures she may have gotten technical aptitude from both. For several years, she has leaned more toward the biological sciences, intrigued by what she’s heard from an aunt who works for a vitamin supplier. That’s what prompted her to apply for the Wistar program.

In addition to the tests for the HIV study, Billups and her peers also conducted some preliminary experiments on anti-cancer compounds for Maureen E. Murphy, another Wistar researcher.

“You get old and jaded like me,” the scientist said. “Then you see a young person come in, and you see that spark. I like to think that we all give a lot to each other.”

Another participant in the program, Central High School junior Amal Oubarri, said the Wistar faculty established high standards.

“It wasn’t like our instructors treated us as kids,” she said. “It seemed like a real fellowship.”

That was by design, said Wistar scientist Jason Diaz, who oversees the high school program. With ample guidance, the students were expected to contribute to real experiments by the end of the three-week period.

“That doesn’t sound like a lot of time,” he said. “But if you’re doing this for the entire day for several weeks, and you’re getting lots of feedback from us, you can get pretty good pretty quickly.”

They and the Cheyney students are listed by name in the acknowledgments of the study. Before the compound could be used as an HIV drug, years of additional research remain, perhaps with the help of future young participants in Wistar’s programs.

Most of last summer’s high school students, who earned stipends of $1,000, came from magnet or science-themed public schools in Philadelphia. Diaz said he is starting to build more relationships with neighborhood schools. Eventually, he hopes to offer students the chance to come back the following year for an 8-week internship.

“I definitely had students who wished they could stay longer, so they could repeat an experiment,” he said. “That’s what you want to see, that the failure doesn’t cause you to run away, but inspires you to stay longer.”

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