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Meharry, Vanderbilt Medical Schools to Expand AIDS Research

For more than a decade, researchers at the Meharry Medical College and the Vanderbilt University Medical Center have worked together to carry out the work of the Vanderbilt-Meharry Center for AIDS Research and the mission of the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance.

In a new arrangement that includes the state of Tennessee, the two institutions have recently established the Tennessee Center for AIDS Research, which will broaden the research and outreach work of the center. Late last month, officials announced that Vanderbilt University has been awarded a five-year, $7.5 million grant from the U.S. National Institutes of Health (NIH) to fund the new research collaborative.

“The basis for having [the Tennessee] Center for AIDS Research is to create new synergy and opportunities for a research community that’s been strong in HIV research and where there’s support to take it to the next level,” said Dr. David Haas, co-director of the new center and a Vanderbilt professor of medicine, pathology, microbiology and immunology, and pharmacology.

Officials say the new center will largely focus on two goals: improve the continuum of HIV/AIDS care in Tennessee, especially in its metropolitan areas, and to advance personalized care in the treatment of HIV through basic research and clinical trials.

Haas explained that personalized care represents “a huge strength” at Vanderbilt. Personalized HIV care refers to treatment that not only takes into account genetic variations impacting patients’ response to medications, but to other medical, social and environmental factors. Continuum of care includes the interventions provided at all stages of illness that can bring about improved outcomes for patients.

In addition, expanding training and research opportunities is another center priority that researchers at Vanderbilt, Meharry and the state will see enhanced with the Developmental Core Awards. Distributed by the center annually on a competitive basis, these awards are intended to support research projects for short periods of time, generally about one year in duration.

Dr. Duane Smoot, the new center’s co-director along with Haas and chair of the Department of Internal Medicine at Meharry, says the involvement of the Tennessee health department raises the potential for innovative research and clinical trial work.

“The biggest difference is bringing in the Department of Health … in getting their point of view and their statewide footprint to assist us in identifying [HIV care] needs,” Smoot said.

“By having the state health department involved and being able to go through their data, we hope to expand our reach,” he added.

“We’re trying to put together the clinical databases from our Wellness Center at Meharry with the clinical center at Vanderbilt so that we can utilize data on our combined populations to better understand what’s happening in regard to the treatments and how our patients are doing,” Smoot said.

Haas said Tennessee health data will be available to center researchers for analysis and interpretation. “The Tennessee Department of Health has a great deal of epidemiological data to understand. … They don’t have a great capacity to analyze data in a way that will make it most useful for making decisions,” he noted.

“Vanderbilt and Meharry will bring expertise to bear on all that data from across the state to inform policies moving forward and really make the best decisions using taxpayers’ money at the state level,” he said.

Smoot observed that it’s timely that Meharry, a historically Black institution, is entering a new phase in its AIDS research just as Dr. James Hildreth, a pioneering AIDS researcher, has taken the reins of the school’s leadership as its newly inaugurated president. A former Meharry professor and researcher from 2005 to 2011, Hildreth was the founding director of the school’s Center for AIDS Health Disparities Research.

“It’s quite fitting that, upon [Hildreth’s] return, we’re able to show that we’re still working, moving, and growing from all of the things that he has put together,” Smoot said.

Dr. Simon Mallal, the Major E.B. Stahlman Professor of Infectious Diseases and Inflammation at Vanderbilt, is principal investigator of the new center. Dr. Carolyn Wester at the Tennessee Department of Health and Dr. Consuelo Wilkins, executive director of the Meharry-Vanderbilt Alliance, are key principals in the new center.

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