UF researchers receive $4.7 million to study ties between marijuana use and HIV infection

Published: Monday, January 10, 2011 at 7:18 p.m.
Last Modified: Monday, January 10, 2011 at 7:18 p.m.

Researchers at the University of Florida will join forces with others at the University of South Florida and the University of California, San Diego, in a study of how the complex ties between marijuana use and HIV infection can influence the development of neurological disorders in adolescents.

The five-year study has been awarded $4.7 million in funding by the National Institutes of Health.

“Findings from this study could translate into better diagnostic tools and new therapies to improve long-term outcomes for young adults infected with HIV,” principal investigator Maureen Goodenow explained. Goodenow holds an endowed chair in AIDS research in the UF College of Medicine.

Powerful new therapies have rendered HIV less deadly, however problems with movement and thinking, including dementia, are still common in those who are infected with the virus. As a result, many HIV-infected adolescents face a lifetime of impaired thinking and behavior.

Sensory neuropathy associated with HIV is a nerve condition that causes pain, numbness or tingling in the extremities. It affects about four in 10 HIV patients on antiretroviral therapy.

Goodenow says the fact that the study looks at marijuana use has drawn most of the attention. For the researchers, however, the most exciting aspect is to discover what are the early impacts of HIV infection. Why doesn't everyone with HIV develop peripheral neuropathy? That's just one of the questions the investigators hope to answer.

Joining Goodenow in the study are Dr. John Sleasman, chief of pediatric allergy, immunology and rheumatology at the University of South Florida College of Medicine, and pediatric neuropsychologist Sharon Nichols in San Diego.

The researchers previously found that 30 percent to 40 percent of HIV-infected youth — those between the ages of 16 and 25 — report they have used marijuana, alcohol, smoking tobacco, cocaine, methamphetamines or other substances. Almost one-third reported they used marijuana every day.

No one knows whether marijuana use is “good, bad or indifferent in terms of their disease progression,” Sleasman said. “We don't really know what to tell young people in terms of lifestyle management if they have HIV.”

“It has less to do with their HIV infection than with the fact that it's what young people in this age group do,” Goodenow ventured. “This reflects what you find in the population, which is why we decided to incorporate marijuana as a variable in our study.”

It's not a goal of the study to support the use of medical marijuana, she emphasized. It will not be prescribed or administered to those who take part in the study, funded through the National Institute on Drug Abuse and a project of the Florida Center for AIDS Research.

The researchers will focus on marijuana's main psychoactive component, a compound called THC that targets receptors in the brain, central nervous system and immune system.

UF virologists will study HIV-infected and HIV-free macrophages (the white blood cells that direct the body's immune response) using a technique called systems biology. This will allow them to identify specific cellular changes and interactions related to the active compounds in marijuana.

Study participants — 150 of them — will be recruited from 15 sites around the country through the national Adolescent Trials Network. They will be between 16 and 25 years old and will fit into one of four groups: those who are already taking antiviral therapy, those who are untreated although they have HIV, those who are receiving treatment earlier than recommended and a control group not infected with HIV.

“The most important part of the study is that it offers a fantastic opportunity to link laboratory-based research with clinical trials research,” Goodenow said. For the researchers, she said, it offers an opportunity to make discoveries that aren't based on any preconceived notion ... going in with a clean slate.

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