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With Federal Grant, Student Research, Biology Lab Investigates HIV

By Jenna Pizzi

A $2.1 million grant from the National Institutes of Health has expanded the scope of research into HIV led by Zachary Klase, PhD, in his biology lab.

With the new funding and mandate, both graduate and undergraduate student researchers are examining several different facets of HIV, how it impacts different types of cells, and stays in tact through different therapies and treatments.

“When I first arrived at USciences, I was interested in all of these little, basic things about HIV. Through doing the science in our lab, we were able to follow all the answers to bring us closer and closer to new ideas,” said Dr. Klase. “That has brought us to where we are now, studying drug abuse and HIV.”

Angel Lin works in the labDr. Klase said there is huge overlap between individuals struggling with substance use disorders and those with HIV. Unfortunately, this means the effects of drug abuse are magnified in individuals with HIV and AIDS, he said. An investigation of that relationship, which Dr. Klase’s lab is conducting, will likely reveal more information about both HIV and addiction at a cellular level.

Each student in his lab is given their individual angle to investigate. While working as a team, Dr. Klase reviews and analyzes each student’s results and helps them to determine a path forward.  Students are studying how the virus lives in cells for decades, often without functioning as an active infection, and how different drugs or therapies may impact the virus.

“HIV is the first thing to beat modern medical science,” said Dr. Klase. “We don’t have a vaccine. We can’t cure it. It stopped us in our tracks in terms of 20th century medicine, so students working in my lab get to put themselves in this problem and see all the aspects of it.”

Angel Lin PhD’20 said she wanted to pursue her degree in cell and molecular biology to work on something that would have a significant impact on human health like HIV.

“While we are really far from getting an effective vaccine working for HIV, I think this strategy that we have in Dr. Klase’s lab is pretty important and conducts meaningful work toward that end,” Lin said.

Kenneth Chen PhD’21, who is pursuing his PhD in cell and molecular biology as part of USciences’ dual degree program with Philadelphia College of Osteopathic Medicine, said after hearing from a panel of HIV patients during his second year of medical school, he was inspired to work toward finding a cure to treat the disease.

Under Dr. Klase’s guidance, Chen is studying brain cells to determine how HIV patients develop neurocognitive disorders. Through this research he hopes to better understand what is happening at the cellular level.

“It is a very rewarding task when you generate data and you come out with information that you know no one else has seen before,” said Chen. “You hold the primary data and evidence for a specific disease process that might push therapy forward and for me that is very, very exciting.”

He said his experience at USciences has been academically challenging, forcing him to think independently while bringing together the biology, chemistry, and biochemistry he learned as an undergraduate to apply to one problem.

“I definitely think this experience has given me the tools I’ll need to take a patient’s disease process and take it to the bench and figure out what’s going on biochemically to try to push medicine forward in terms of new treatments and improvements to different types of treatments,” Chen said.

Lin said she was excited for the opportunity to work in Dr. Klase’s lab because of the importance of HIV to human health, but since working there she has been delighted to have the opportunity to work independently while in a strong and supportive team environment.

“Dr. Klase really allows you to work independently, think independently, and chase your own dreams,” Lin said. “Since I’ve been doing research in this lab, I’ve found that I really do have passion in this field, and I expect to continue to apply these skills in my career as a post-doctoral researcher and faculty somewhere.” 

Categories: Misher College of Arts and Sciences, Department of Biological Sciences, Biology, Faculty, Students, Research