Two Indian American professors receive NIH’s Avant-Garde Research Awards for 2024

Venigalla Rao, Ph.D., PHOTO:
Sunil Suhas Solomon, Ph.D.. PHOTO Linkedin @sunil-suhas-solomon

Two Indian American professors were among the three selected to receive the National Institutes of Health’s National Institute of Drug Abuse 2024 Avant Garde Award announced June 17, for conducting innovative research into preventing and possibly ending HIV.

Biology Professor Venigalla Rao, Ph.D. of Catholic University, and Sunil Suhas Solomon, Ph.D., professor of Medicine and Epidemiology in the Division of Infectious Diseases at the Johns Hopkins University School of Medicine are two of only three individuals chosen for the prestigious grants for this year. The 3rd recipient is Alejandro B. Balazs, Ph.D., is an Assistant Professor of Medicine at Harvard Medical School and a Principal Investigator at the Ragon Institute of MGH, MIT and Harvard in Cambridge, MA.

The NIDA Avant-Garde Award Program for HIV and Substance Use Disorder Research supports individual scientists of exceptional creativity at all career levels who propose high-impact research that will open new areas of HIV research and/or lead to new avenues for prevention and treatment of HIV among people who use drugs. The term “avant-garde” is used to describe highly innovative approaches that have the potential to be transformative.

On its website,, the award is described as follows: The PAR-23-269: NIDA Avant-Garde Award Program for HIV and Substance Use Disorder Research (DP1)​​​​​​​ is part of the Director’s Pioneer Award mechanism at NIDA that supports investigators with exceptional creativity proposing high impact research projects that will open new areas of HIV/AIDS research relevant to substance use disorders (SUD) and lead to novel avenues for prevention and treatment of HIV/AIDS among people who use drugs (PWUD).

Dr. Rao’s project grant of $5 million, has the potential to end HIV, and is directed toward engineering Bacteriophage T4 as a Targeted Gene Therapy Drug for in vivo HIV Cure: This project will establish a new category of in vivo HIV cure “drugs” that would potentially transform the health of substance users who are disproportionately affected by HIV disease, as well as that of ~39 million people across the globe who are living with HIV today.

“Using a novel large capacity bacteriophage T4 artificial viral vector technology developed in the Rao laboratory, nanoparticles will be programmed with a payload of genome editing molecules, which will target hematopoietic stem cells (HSCs) in vivo and introduce a delta-32 deletion mutation into the CCR5 HIV co-receptor gene,” NIDA said. “The genetically modified HSCs will then differentiate and repopulate the body with HIV-resistant cells including CD4+ T cells which are now immune to HIV infection. These cells will replace the existing HIV reservoir resulting in a functional HIV cure.

Dr. Rao is a Professor of Biology and Founding Director of Bacteriophage Medical Research Center at The Catholic University of America, Washington, DC.

He earned his Ph. D. in Biochemistry from the Indian Institute of Science, Bangalore, and did post-doctoral research on bacteriophage T4 assembly and genome packaging at the University of Maryland Medical School.

He is credited with conducting seminal research to tease out the mechanisms of viral DNA packaging and establishing a multi-disciplinary research program to translate basic knowledge into vaccines and gene therapies against HIV and other infectious and genetic diseases.

Of particular significance is his current research to create new curative technologies interfacing bacteriophages and human cells, NIDA said.

Dr. Rao has received numerous research awards from National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation, and holds twenty-four US and international patents. He is a Fellow of the American Academy of Microbiology, and a Fellow of the National Academy of Inventors.

“It’s a great honor for me and for the Catholic University of America to have received this award,” Rao is quoted saying in the University news site, adding, “If we can repair the stem cells, then those repaired stem cells will repopulate the body. The current HIV genetic disease will eventually be eliminated. The people don’t have to take any drugs, and they will be HIV resistant for future infections.” But he added he had no illusion that it would be an easy path to success.

Dr. Solomon will study “Long-Acting Injectables for Treatment of HIV among PWID (LIFT HIV)”

Long-acting antiretrovirals (LA ART) have the potential to revolutionize the delivery of HIV services; yet, there have been no data on the use of these agents among PWID including from low- and middle-income settings where viral suppression among PWID is several-fold lower than the general population, NIDA notes in its press release.

The objective of this award to Dr. Solomon is to evaluate the feasibility and acceptability of LA ART via ethnography, estimate the efficacy and safety of LA ART vs. oral ART among previously unsupressed PWID via a clinical trial and model the cost-effectiveness of LA ART among PWID populations using agent-based modelling incorporating costs.

Dr. Solomon completed his medical training in India and received an MPH and a PhD in Epidemiology from Johns Hopkins University. He has been elected to the Phi Beta Kappa and the Delta Omega honors societies.

His research is primarily focused on improving access to preventive and treatment services for HIV and viral hepatitis among vulnerable populations.

He was one of the first recipients of the Avenir award (DP2) from NIDA. He served as the Protocol Chair of ACTGA5360 (MINMON), findings from which have impacted HCV guidelines globally.

In April 2019, he was awarded a $50 million co-operative agreement from PEPFAR/USAID to implement and evaluate innovative models of service delivery to improve the HIV care cascade in India with a focus on vulnerable populations.

He currently serves as the Co-Chair of the Substance Use Scientific Committee of the HIV Prevention Trials Network (HPTN) and the Protocol Chair of HPTN 103/PURPOSE4, the first trial of long-acting PrEP among PWID.



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