Grant Backs Joint Meharry-Vanderbilt HIV Project

Meharry Medical College and Vanderbilt University are working together to expand HIV research in the state of Tennessee under a $5 million grant from the National Institutes of Health.

The HBCU and majority White university have collaborated before on HIV research, but this five-year grant includes the Tennessee Department of Health as a full partner, a move that does not often happen in grant-funded initiatives. While two agencies may collaborate on a project, the health department is usually not a part of the study.

“We have been working together for a number of years but this grant will allow us to expand what we are doing,” said Dr. Duane Smoot, co-director of the newly funded Tennessee Center for AIDS Research.

The numbers of people infected with HIV are growing slowly, and college campuses reflect that, Smoot said.

“There’s more casual sex, and some people don’t realize that their partner may not be 100 percent heterosexual,” he said.

He said while most infected are young men, they are seeing more young women in the clinics as well.

“We see a fair proportion of women and unsuspecting cases. They lack knowledge about who their partner has been with before,” Smoot said.

The grant will allow the medical college and university to do more education throughout the state, as well as to conduct community research.

Smoot said the grant, which was awarded in April, “allows them to work around the state and identify improvements in care and help to reduce the incidence of the disease.”

He added that the Department of Health will look at statistics and analyze the data to see what impact the collaboration is having.

“We’ll be able to see how we are really doing,” he said. “Are we reducing deaths?”

Smoot said the clinicians want to personalize treatment across “the continuum of care.”

“Most of the patients seen are referred by their primary physicians, but some are walk-ins to the clinics,” he said.

He said the researchers have some data showing some patients have the virus at levels that are almost undetectable when tested.

“We’re doing a better job of maintaining patients that are compliant,” (than with non-compliant patients),” he said.

While the grant does not provide for additional hiring, it will allow junior investigators to do more clinical research, Smoot said.

He said the areas of focus will continue to change “as we see where we need to be.”

The state doesn’t have high rates of infection, when compared to some other states in the South, but the metropolitan areas are seeing infection rates grow, according to the Tennessee Department of Health.

About 1 million people live within the United States with HIV. Middle Tennessee has about 6,000 people living with HIV, according to the state health department.

A little more than 80 percent of those treated are young males, according to the TDH. Most cases are in the Memphis/Shelby County area, followed by the Nashville/Davidson County area.

Recent campaigns to educate and help reduce the number of cases of HIV transmission had focused on larger metropolitan areas in the country.

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