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The National Institutes of Health has recognized the University of Miami Miller School of Medicine as Florida’s first and only Center for AIDS Research (CFAR), a prestigious designation awarded to only about 20 of the nation’s most prolific and promising AIDS research institutions.

With the award, the Miller School’s Developmental Center for AIDS Research (D-CFAR) is transitioning to a full CFAR after proving its ability to operate at the highest scientific level and will receive a significant increase in NIH funding – nearly $7 million over five years – to enhance existing research and nurture new research in HIV/AIDS.

“The grant recognizes that the work we are doing at the Miller School and across the University is contributing significantly to understanding how the virus creates havoc on the immune system and the sanctuaries where it chooses to hide – which is essential for developing a cure that has eluded us for so long,’’ said Savita Pahwa, M.D., director of the Miami CFAR, and professor of microbiology and immunology, pediatrics and medicine. “The designation also means, as a University, we are being counted on to make even greater strides toward the control and eradication of HIV/AIDS, and that’s what we’re prepared to do.”

Pascal J. Goldschmidt, M.D., Senior Vice President for Medical Affairs and Dean of the Miller School, said Miller School researchers have earned the designation by putting UM on the map as the premier AIDS research center in the world. “They have been at the forefront of the battle against HIV/AIDS for decades and have developed or contributed to some of the most significant scientific, clinical and behavioral approaches to fighting the disease,” Goldschmidt said. “With a CFAR, we are being given a great opportunity to push the envelope even further toward a cure.”

Florida remains home to one of the nation’s largest and most diverse populations of HIV-infected people. The Miller School’s commitment and contributions to HIV/AIDS research and treatment date back to 1981, soon after a mysterious immune disorder was diagnosed in homosexual men. UM doctors were the first to recognize that the disorder also was affecting heterosexuals, including Haitians who were erroneously thought to be infected through IV drug use or homosexual sex. UM researchers were among the first to describe pediatric HIV infection and the transmission of HIV from pregnant mothers to their babies. They also investigated and pioneered the use of AZT, led studies that showed a combination of antiretroviral drugs improved health and survival, and provided major insights into the relationship between drug use and HIV infection.

Like the D-CFAR, the Miami CFAR is specifically designed to provide scientific leadership and infrastructure that, in partnership with the community, advances innovative multidisciplinary HIV/AIDS research in basic, clinical, epidemiological, behavioral/social sciences and translational research to prevent, treat and cure HIV/AIDS.

Among its scientific areas of research are drug use and HIV prevention, HIV in women, therapeutics and prevention, vaccines and immunology, and AIDS malignancies. A critical part of the CFAR mission is to facilitate recruitment of expert faculty in different areas of AIDS research, enable UM researchers to move to the next level, and give young investigators opportunities and mentorship to enter the arena of HIV research and become competitive in obtaining federal funds.

“We are talking about how to broaden the umbrella of AIDS research and the growth and evolution of young scientists,” Pahwa said. “It’s an opportunity to build onto what we’ve already built and make it better.’’

The University’s application to transition its D-CFAR to a full-fledged CFAR was rated “exceptional” by the NIH, garnering high ratings for the institution’s support of HIV/AIDS initiatives, the diversity of the population it serves, the five established core areas—administrative, developmental, clinical sciences, laboratory sciences, and behavioral/social sciences and community outreach—and the University’s support for the AIDS Malignancies Scientific Working Group.

The NIH also was impressed that the “strong” faculty members who led the D-CFAR’s cores will continue leading their sections. Pahwa will continue as leader of the administrative core, with valuable input from co-directors Margaret Fischl, M.D., professor of medicine and director of the AIDS Clinical Research Unit, and Mario Stevenson, Ph.D., an internationally known HIV/AIDS researcher who was named chief of the Division of Infectious Diseases in the Department of Medicine in 2010.

Pahwa also will continue to lead the laboratory sciences core, while Gwendolyn Scott, M.D., professor of pediatrics and director of the Division of Pediatric Infectious Disease and Immunology, who pioneered the use of AZT to prevent perinatal infection, will continue to lead the developmental core.

Fischl, an original investigator of AZT and lead author of the study that led to its FDA approval, will continue to lead the clinical core, and Guillermo “Willy” Prado, Ph.D., associate professor of epidemiology and public health, will lead the behavioral/social sciences and community outreach core.

“The success we have achieved is a reflection of the hard work and standards of excellence in the leadership – from directors, co-directors and investigators assigned to the cores, and administrative staff, as this program requires teamwork and initiative,’’ Pahwa said, noting that several new members will join the team in the new funding cycle.

As was the case with the D-CFAR, the Miami CFAR will be funded for five years and reviewed after that time.

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