Two researchers – one established, one starting his career. Each joined the UTHSC College of Pharmacy faculty in the fall of 2014. Each has a question related to HIV/AIDS. While one is taking a clinical approach and hopes to find a better delivery of drugs to treat the disease, the other is looking for better medications to treat those living with HIV/AIDS who abuse alcohol, tobacco and drugs.
Both have set up research laboratories at the college, and through collaboration, are achieving faster and better results. This is due in part to the interrelated core values that guide the two research teams that work in the lab. The values are spelled out on small signs that are visible at several locations in the lab – GOOD (go on for original discovery) Science, TEAM (together everyone achieves more) Work, BPNS (be predictable, no surprises) Action and EEO-LEO (empower each other, learn from each other) Attitude. This mindset enables the researchers’ cooperation and defines their laboratory practices.
“We need to be a model lab, not just in our science and in terms of safety, but also in our courtesy to people,” explained veteran researcher and associate professor of Pharmaceutical Sciences Santosh Kumar, PhD.
“Our research interests are similar enough so that we can help one another, but dissimilar enough so that we are not competing. We have our own avenues and research objectives,” said Theodore (Ted) Cory, PharmD, PhD, assistant professor in the Department of Clinical Pharmacy, who is in his first year of research at UTHSC and is partnering with Dr. Kumar in his research projects.
The researchers have identified several ways that working together has assisted each of their projects. First, experiments are jointly reviewed and questions about research designs are identified. Group critiques that strengthen projects take place during joint lab meetings. By sharing information and resources, particularly patient recruitment, redundancies are reduced. Through this synergistic approach, each researcher is further along in their respective activities.
Dr. Cory is looking at the places where HIV hides in the body, also known as reservoir or sanctuary sites. In these sites, drug concentrations are not effective. He seeks to find a way to increase the effectiveness of drug concentrations inside sanctuary sites, thereby reducing the presence of the virus.
To do his research, Dr. Cory works with a technician and a P3 student. As part of his and Dr. Kumar’s project, he is working with Regional One Health (formerly The MED) to collect blood samples of those who are HIV positive and are also alcohol and drug abusers. The cells are analyzed for molecules that neutralize antiretrovirals.
“We’ve gotten a lot done in the last year,” Dr. Cory said. He has results that are now being prepared for publication.
“Amazing strides have been made in HIV/AIDS research in the last 10-15 years,” he said. “Having AIDS is no longer a death sentence, but a disease you can live with. There is still a ton of work to do before we have a cure for the disease. Hopefully, what I am doing is a small piece that will lead to the long-term goal of a cure.”
The blood samples collected and subjects recruited by Dr. Cory’s lab are also used by Dr. Kumar in his research that is primarily focused on the effects of alcohol and tobacco consumption on long-term surviving patients with HIV-1 who are receiving antiretroviral therapy.
A prolific researcher and publisher, Dr. Kumar started a new lab to study HIV six years ago. “I saw that this prominent disease was exploding. I took the position of ‘What was coming?’ and used my basic science training to begin my research,” he explained.
“We are now seeing the maturation of the disease (HIV/AIDS) and have started studying NeuroAIDS and HIV-associated dementia. Those who have lived 10-15 years with the disease are now showing cognitive disorders like memory loss, lack of attention and shaking hands. This is a hot topic for NIH (National Institutes of Health),” said Dr. Kumar.
The HIV-associated dementia problem is compounded in aging HIV/AIDS survivors as drug, tobacco and alcohol abuse is prevalent in this population. “In some cases, addictions caused the infections, for example using contaminated needles. Now we see that all these addictions interact to make problems worse – HIV/AIDS; drug, tobacco and alcohol abuse. Then, these long-term survivors must face the onset of diseases associated with aging like Parkinson’s and Alzheimer’s,” Dr. Kumar continued.
His research seeks to develop novel drugs and treatments of the cognitive disorders now seen in long-term HIV/AIDS patients who abuse substances. “The drug therapies do not work as well when you are drinking or smoking. Of course, the first choice would be to change the habit. This would be best. But for those who can’t, we hope to find a novel drug solution or change their treatment plan. This population of patients will continue to grow as more people are living with the disease.”
Funded by an NIH grant, Dr. Kumar’s research team comprises two postdoctoral trainees, three graduate students, a research assistant, a summer student and a volunteer.
“Teaching is one of my passions”
So says Dr. Santosh Kumar. The breadth and depth of his commitment to both pharmacy education and research is evident from the awards he has received.
In 2014, the President of India, Pranab Mukherjee, presented him the Mahatma Gandhi Pravasi Samman or the Mahatma Gandhi Non-resident Indian Honor. The award is given by the Non-resident Indian (NRI) Welfare Society of India to a handful of NRIs every year. The advisory committee that selects the recipients comprises many eminent personalities, including current central government ministers, former prime ministers of India and state governors. Dr. Kumar was recognized for his teaching and mentoring of students, for his national and international service and recognition, for inspiring others for his outstanding service along with his contribution, and for his achievements in research with HIV-1 and substance abuse. He has inspired numerous students and children through teaching and mentoring, and is passionate about inspiring and bringing out the best in “Gen iY” (members of the generation who were born in the internet age after 1990).
Additionally this past April, Dr. Kumar was awarded the Society of Neuroimmune Pharmacology (SNIP) Outstanding Service and Support Award, given to an individual who has shown extraordinary service in facilitating the operation of the society’s initiatives. This annual award recognizes SNIP members who have demonstrated excellence in research and service to the society. Dr. Kumar has served as SNIP’s Chair of the Early Career Investigator Committee for the past six years and has been instrumental in completing work considered “behind the scenes.”
In 2013, while a member of the faculty at the University of Missouri, Kansas City, he was named Teacher of the Year.