UMMS Investigator receives NIH Merit Award

September 13, 2000

WORCESTER, Mass. - As part of a highly selective National Institutes of Health (NIH) research grant program, Mario Stevenson, PhD, the David J. Freelander Memorial Professor in AIDS Research at the University of Massachusetts Medical School, has been awarded an immediate five-year extension on his research into the basic mechanisms of how the AIDS virus (HIV) enters macrophages. Made on the basis of past excellence, this "MERIT" award will allow Dr. Stevenson to focus on his research for ten years - in the form of back-to-back, five-year grants totaling some $3.4 million.

"Our institution is nationally recognized as a leader in AIDS and HIV research, thanks to the commitment and dedication of scientists like Dr. Stevenson," said Aaron Lazare, MD, chancellor and dean of UMass Medical School. "He is most deserving of this prestigious award."

Initiated in 1987, the MERIT Award program extends funding to a select number of investigators who have demonstrated superior competence and outstanding productivity during their previous research endeavors. The MERIT awards are intended to provide such investigators with long-term, stable support to foster their continued creativity and spare them some of the administrative burdens associated with frequent preparation and submission of research grant applications.

Stevenson and his lab were the first to demonstrate that HIV is fundamentally different from other types of retroviruses due to its ability to infect non-cycling cells. This property is what enables the virus to infect macrophages, which are supposed to recognize foreign pathogens and stimulate the immune system. Infection of macrophages may be essential to the replication of the virus; HIV likely uses them as a "transport" mechanism to disseminate the virus throughout the body.

"The AIDS paradigm has generally been that it's a T-cell disease," explained Stevenson. "What we are seeing, however, is that many of the pathogenic manifestations of AIDS, many of the things that the virus relies upon for its very existence, do not exist in T-cells but in macrophages."

Stevenson plans to use his MERIT award to explore approaches that could interrupt HIV's ability to exploit macrophages. He specifically hopes to investigate some strategies to obstruct the biochemical pathways that HIV proteins use to interact with normal cellular proteins, actions that could essentially block the function of the viral protein.

"This MERIT award changes your motis operandi somewhat, allowing you to pursue some questions that may have been smoldering in the background but can now be actively pursued," Stevenson said. "I'm thankful to be given this latitude with my research."

A graduate of Glasgow College of Technology, Stevenson earned his doctoral degree from the University of Strathclyde in Glasgow, and completed his postdoctoral work at the University of Nebraska Medical Center. After more than a decade at the University of Nebraska, where he held the David Purtilo Chair of Pathology and Microbiology, Stevenson joined UMMS in 1995 as a member of the interdisciplinary Program in Molecular Medicine and as a professor of molecular genetics & microbiology. He also currently serves as director of the UMass Center for AIDS Research and is a resident of Shrewsbury.

The University of Massachusetts Medical School, one of the fastest growing academic health centers in the country, has built a reputation as a world-class research institution, consistently producing noteworthy advances in clinical and basic research. UMass Medical School and its clinical partner, UMass Memorial Health Care, attracts more than $93 million in research funding annually, 80 percent of which comes from federal funding sources. Research funding enables UMass researchers to explore human disease from the molecular level to large-scale clinical trials. Basic and clinical research leads to new approaches for diagnosis, treatment and prevention of disease.