August 25, 2011 | Myrna Anderson

Biology professor Anding Shen is researching how latent HIV hides through a $300,000 grant from the National Institutes of Health.

Recently, biology professor Anding Shen landed a $300, 000 grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) to study the role of endothelial cells in HIV infection—a project that will occupy her for the next three summers and her 2012 fall sabbatical. Shen received the idea for the research project from an unexpected source: a colleague from another university handed it on.

Since 1999, Shen has been researching on the HIV latent reservoir, which she describes in this way: “HIV hides in immune cells. You can be doing well on the drug therapy, but the virus can still be in your cells.”

Laying off the medicine

It is not uncommon for HIV patients to forgo their medication for a time when they are feeling strong, particularly because HIV drugs are expensive and have many side effects: “If you’re doing well with your flu, you don’t keep taking Tamiflu. If you are doing well with strep throat, you don’t keep taking antibiotics. And if you’re doing well with HIV, you don’t keep taking meds,” Shen said. But when HIV patients lay off their meds, the virus will always rebound, usually within a month.  And the reason for the rebound of virus is the latent reservoir, which keeps patients on meds for life.

In 2008, Shen was researching several aspects of the latent reservoir, when she received an email from Jaehuyk Choi, a then graduate student at Yale Medical School.

Choi too had been doing HIV research, and he had discovered that endothelial cells—the cells that line human blood vessels—work on T-cells or T-lymphocytes (white blood cells that are key to the immune system) to make them more permissible to HIV infection. “He contacted me to ask me if I was interested in working on this project because he was moving on to other areas,” Shen recalled.

“Unheard of,” she summarized the circumstance. Her field of research moves very fast, Shen said, and HIV latency research is extremely fast-paced. “I wrote a grant a few years back, and the research I proposed in the grant was published the week after I submitted the grant,” she said. “Someone else had done it before I had a chance. So I knew I had to find some research topic that wasn't so competitive, and here it was, a gift from God.” 

Looking for the reservoir

During the next three summers and her sabbatical, Shen and five student researchers will be co-culturing endothelial cells and T-cells (growing them in the same dish), infecting the T-cells with HIV and looking for latent reservoirs in the T-cells . “Do the endothelial cells help in the formation of the latent reservoir?” Shen wants to know. She also wants to know what the endothelial cells are doing to the T-cells to make them more permissible for HIV infection. Her research could have a significant effect on the treatment of HIV infection and AIDS.

“These are very important questions for HIV latent reservoir research,” Shen said, “Until now the field has not realized the importance of endothelial cells. If we discover that endothelial cells are indeed critical in latent reservoir formation, it will change the whole paradigm of the field."

Born and raised in Shanghai, China, Shen earned a B.S. in biology in 1998 at Drexel University and a Ph.D. from John Hopkins University in 2004.  She discovered Calvin while job hunting on the Council for Christian Colleges and Universities website. “I knew I wanted to teach. I didn’t only want to do research, and I knew I wanted to teach in a Christian context,” she said.

She began teaching at Calvin in 2005 and currently teaches classes in cell biology, genetics, microbiology, and immunology courses. During January interim, Shen leads a course on Chinese medicine and Chinese culture in her homeland (and on Calvin's campus) a class that attracts pre-med, nursing, biology, international development and Asian Studies students.

Shen has been studying the HIV latent reservoir since graduate school, and two years ago had been invited to speak at an international conference on HIV persistence. “She is creating for herself a reputation as a national and international expert on AIDS and HIV,” said biology professor David DeHeer of his colleague.

Shen deflects the praise, especially about her current project: “This is a real godsend,” she said. “I don’t take any credit for that.”

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