Ritu Gaur is a professor at the South Asian University in New Delhi, India, studying molecular and cell biology of HIV-1 with an emphasis on understanding the molecular mechanisms of the host’s antiviral factors and translating these findings into novel drugs for use Cure from AIDS.
Welcome to our Meet the SDG3 researcher Blog collection. We interview a number of academics and practitioners who work in various fields to achieve Sustainable Development Goal 3: Ensure healthy lives and promote well-being for all people of all ages. More articles from this collection can be found here, and find out what else Springer Nature is doing to advance this goal on our dedicated SDG3 hub.
Please tell us a little about yourself.
Since 2019 I have been a professor at the Faculty of Life Sciences & Biotechnology (FLSB) at the South Asian University (SAU), New Delhi. I came to SAU in June 2011 as an Assistant Professor and was promoted to Associate Professor in 2012.
I completed my bachelor’s degree in biochemistry at Sri Venkateswara College, Delhi University, followed by a postgraduate master’s degree in biotechnology from Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. I completed my doctorate at the National Institute of Immunology (NII), New Delhi. These are both leading academic institutions in India and accept the top 1-2% of applicants. After my doctorate in 2001, I worked as a postdoc in one of the leading research groups in HIV virology at the Laboratory of Molecular Microbiology (LMM) of the National Institutes of Health (NIH), USA under the direction of Dr. Eric Freed and Dr. Klaus Strebel. I then returned to India in 2009 and worked at the Institute of Liver & Biliary Sciences as Principal Investigator & Assistant Professor until 2011.
Here I have been leading an independent research program for 13 years to study the molecular and cell biology of the AIDS virus HIV-1 with a special focus on understanding the molecular mechanisms of the host’s antiviral factors and translating these findings into the development of new retroviral anti-HIV -Medications. Our research has made significant contributions to our understanding of the fundamental and translational biology of the human immunodeficiency virus (HIV).
How did you come to this research field?
The prospect of working in the field of infectious disease biology has always fascinated me. HIV is the causative agent of AIDS, a deadly disease with no complete cure, although great strides have been made in treatments that enable those infected to deal with the virus. I started working on this virus during my PhD at NII and continued to work during my postdoc at NIH, USA. I had great mentors – Dr. Akhil Banerjea (PhD), Dr. Eric Freed (Postdoc) and Dr. Klaus Strebel (Postdoc), who inspired and motivated me to continue working in the field of HIV biology.
I had succeeded in obtaining both national and international funding which resulted in several peer-reviewed publications. In 2010 I received the Rapid Grant from the Department of Biotechnology for Young Investigators and in 2013 the prestigious NIH Intramural to India Grant Award. While at NIH, I received the Performance Award for Special Achievement in 2008 and the Fellows Award for Research Excellence (FARE) in 2006.
How does your work relate to SDG3?
My work is related to SDG goal 3.3, which aims to end the AIDS epidemic by 2030.
My research focuses on studying host-pathogen interactions in HIV infection and translating the basic knowledge into the development of novel anti-HIV retroviral drugs and latency reversers. One of the main obstacles to curing HIV infection is that the virus can remain hidden and inactive (latent) in certain cells of the immune system (such as CD4 cells) for months or even years. While HIV is in this latent state, the immune system cannot recognize the virus and antiretroviral therapy (ART) has no effect on it. Latency reversal agents reactivate latent HIV in CD4 cells, allowing ART and the body’s immune system to attack the virus.
In a major step forward, the research from my laboratory has contributed significantly to the development of antipaturation agents as a new class of anti-HIV retroviral drugs. Our research efforts have discovered and characterized the mechanism of action of a novel Betulinic acid derivative antiretroviral drug, bevirimat (BVM). We have shown that BVM analogs have potent antiretroviral activity against the major HIV-1 subtypes, particularly the most infectious HIV-1 subtype C. We have also identified and characterized resistant mutations that provide insight into the mechanism of resistance to these compounds. In a landmark study published in Retrovirologywe identified key polymorphisms in HIV subtype C that regulate the virus’ susceptibility to drugs. Our studies will be of great use in developing novel and broadly effective therapies.
In another study, we focused on another maturation inhibitor targeting HIV subtypes B and C, the two most common HIV-1 subtypes, and further clinical development of drugs looks promising.
For a complete cure from AIDS, it is important to specifically combat and reactivate latent HIV. In an important discovery, our group identified and characterized a new class of drugs that reverse virus latency.
HIV makes use of certain proteins (also known as HIV dependency factors) during replication within the cell. Potassium channels play a crucial role in the life cycle of several viruses. In another paper published by us, we have shown important results showing that potassium channels could serve as a safe therapeutic target for the treatment of HIV / AIDS. Our group has established collaborations with industrial partners such as DFH Pharma, Pfizer and Hetero Drugs.
What is the most pressing research question in your field and what are your hopes for future progress?
The most pressing question in HIV research is to find a complete cure for the disease. There are currently more than 25 FDA-approved antiretroviral drugs available for the treatment of HIV / AIDS. Long-term use of antiretroviral drugs can reduce the tolerability of the drug and lead to the development of drug-resistant viruses. That means we would have to keep developing new anti-HIV drugs, which is unsustainable.
Our laboratory has identified new second generation maturation inhibitors that exhibit potent and broad antiretroviral activity in all major HIV-1 virus subtypes, including subtype C, the most infectious HIV-1 subtype. These inhibitors developed by our team have the potential to be in clinical development in the near future and will expand the repertoire of drugs currently used in highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART) for HIV / AIDS.
Please describe the hurdles you encountered during your career.
A major challenge in conducting research is ensuring a smooth flow of funds to keep the work going in the laboratory. In this regard, we have so far been successful in raising funding from national and international institutions, but our fight for more funding continues. A major challenge for female researchers is to maintain the work-life balance that I was able to achieve with the help of my family.
Are you telling us about a resource or person who has particularly inspired you?
My mentors – Dr. Akhil Banerjea, Dr. Eric Freed and Dr. Klaus Strebel – continue to be a great source of inspiration for me. I have with Dr. Banerjea is doing a PhD and I remember being a very patient and understanding person even when the experiments failed. He would help troubleshoot and guide us to improve. I learned a lot from Drs Freed and Strebel. It was so inspiring to see her work at the bank herself. Both of them helped me a lot in becoming an independent scientist.
More articles from this collection can be found here.
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