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 the Geisel School of Medicine at Dartmouth, has received the VISN 1 Network Director’s ICARE award from the VA New England Healthcare System.
Each year, directors from the VA Health System’s integrated regional service networks across the country recognize outstanding contributions from employees who best demonstrate the VA’s core values of: integrity, commitment, advocacy, respect, and excellence (ICARE).
Howell’s award for “exceptional demonstration of the ICARE value of Commitment,” is one of the very few ever given to a researcher. It was presented to her by the VA’s regional and local leadership 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.”
“It means a lot to receive this award, especially at a time when grant funding is so difficult to secure and maintain,” says Howell. “It acknowledges all of the hard work that we’ve done as a team, and it recognizes how important research (along with patient care and education) is to what the VA does.”
Working with Geisel colleagues Susan Eszterhas, PhD, an assistant professor of microbiology/immunology, and Bryan Luikart, PhD, an assistant professor of physiology and neurobiology, 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, who along with Eszterhas and Luikart has two patents pending on the project. “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.”
Howell established the HIV Core Research Facility at the White River Junction VAMC in 1989, and has been a VA Basic Laboratory Research and Development Merit Review-funded research scientist since 1993. She has served as principal investigator, co-investigator, consultant, and mentor on a number of significant projects in the area of HIV and immunology, several of which have received funding from the National Institutes of Health, including a current small business innovation grant with Celdara Medical.