Dr. Saumi Mathews’ breakthrough on potential HIV cure

4 years ago / by Jenn Greenleaf

Image courtesy: Dr. Saumi Mathews, UMNC

It was a proud moment for Dr. Saumi Mathews, a scientist from Kerala, who was part of the University of Nebraska research team that published breakthrough work on potential HIV cure.

When a team of American researchers announced breakthrough results toward a possible cure for HIV/AIDS this Summer, the news spread like wildfire across the globe, including to Salsabeel Green School in a remote village in Kerala, India. It was a great moment for the community in West Mangad, Thrissur, Kerala because Dr. Saumi Mathews, a native who had her STEM schooling in their town, was part of the University of Nebraska research team that made the discovery.

31-year-old Dr. Saumi Mathews earned her degree in biotechnology from Sir Sayed College, Taliparamba in the Kannur district of Kerala. She completed her graduate degree from Aravind Medical Research Foundation in 2016 where she became a Doctor of Philosophy with a Ph.D. in Biomedical Sciences. Since 2016, Mathews has been conducting post-doctoral research work at the University of Nebraska.

Currently, those who are living with HIV must take a cocktail of medications daily to keep the virus under control for the rest of their lives. If patients discontinue the use of these medications, HIV can flare up because its DNA continues hiding in the tissues of its host. These treatments work by preventing HIV replication—the virus’s ability to multiply in the body— but they do not eliminate the virus.

In a joint effort, the research team of the University of Nebraska Medical Center (UNMC) and the Lewis Katz School of Medicine at Temple University, showed that replication-competent HIV-1 DNA is eliminated for the first time in the genomes of living animals.

“Our study shows that treatment to suppress HIV replication and gene editing therapy, when given sequentially, can eliminate HIV from cells and organs of infected animals,” said Kamel Khalili, Ph.D., Professor and chair of the Department of Neuroscience and director of the Comprehensive NeuroAIDS Center at Temple University, in a press release issued by the institution.

Image courtesy: University of Nebraska Medical Center

This research is attracting global attention, including from one of the men who co-discovered HIV as the cause of AIDS. “In my view, this is the most interesting and important therapy-related research advance I have seen in many, many years. Congratulations to the authors,” said Robert Gallo, M.D., who, in 1984, made this co-discovery.

Zandria Ambrose, one of the University of Pittsburg Medical Center’s HIV researchers, believes this study is promising, but more work lies ahead. She says, “This is probably one of the most promising studies that have come out, but there’s some work that still needs to be done.”