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Howell Receives Veterans Affairs ICARE Award

By Tim Dean

Alexandra Howell, PhD, a research biologist at the Veterans Affairs Medical Center (VAMC) in White River Junction, VT, and a professor of medicine and of microbiology/immunology at Geisel, has received the VISN 1 Network Director's ICARE award from the VA New England Healthcare System. The award recognizes outstanding contributions from employees who best demonstrate the VA's core values of: integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect, and excellence (ICARE).

The award recognized Howell for her "innovative, nationally recognized research in HIV/AIDS, bringing together clinical and bench researchers, mentoring many students and junior scientists, and building an active and consistently well-funded research program at the White River Junction VAMC."

Working with colleagues at Geisel, Howell is developing a novel therapeutic approach—utilizing a technique known as CRISPR/Cas and delivery tools called lentiviral vectors—to permanently eliminate HIV from infected cells.

"What many people may not realize is that when HIV infects a cell, it inserts its genome into a chromosome and it's stuck there for the life of the cell," explains Howell. "All of the drugs that HIV-infected patients take can stop the virus from making copies of itself, but these drugs don't rid the part of the virus that's stuck in the chromosome, which will begin replicating again if the drugs are taken away."

These anti-HIV drugs can cause liver and kidney toxicity, require patients to be constantly monitored, and are very expensive, says Howell. "Our goal is to establish a reliable delivery process for an RNA molecule and an enzyme—the two components of CRISPR/Cas—that have been shown in the lab to be effective in excising the HIV virus from infected cells, and that also protect healthy cells from becoming infected."

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Geisel School of Medicine at DartmouthDartmouth-Hitchcock Medical CenterWhite River Junction VAMCNorris Cotton Cancer CenterDartmouth College