Graduate assistant Thomas Cirino receives $1,000 grant to study HIV-produced protein

Thomas Cirino headshot
Graduate assistant Thomas Cirino is the recipient of the 2017 MilliporeSigma Neuroscience Discovery Grant Program.

Graduate assistant Thomas Cirino, who works with Jay McLaughlin, Ph.D., in the department of pharmacodynamics, received $1,000 from the 2017 MilliporeSigma Neuroscience Discovery Grant Program, which offered grants to students studying neuroinflammation and neurodegenerative diseases.

Cirino studies a protein produced by HIV called “Tat,” that adversely affects 50 percent of HIV-positive patients’ learning and memory even with medication. The medication suppresses the virus in the body, but continues to influence neuronal function from reservoirs in the brain. Specifically, the HIV Tat protein has been detected in the central nervous system of patients with undetectable viral load in the blood.

“We believe that the Tat protein contributes to the observed pathology — increased mood, addiction and cognitive disorders — in patients currently under treatment and who are virally suppressed,” Cirino said.

Unfortunately, the antibodies that are traditionally used to detect and measure the amount of Tat protein in blood and cerebrospinal fluid are not as selective as needed. Results quantifying the Tat protein have been difficult to replicate both within and outside individual scientific groups.

The goal with the grant is to validate a novel detection system that does not depend on antibodies to quantify the Tat protein, produce a user-friendly, cost-effective method and hopefully facilitate better replication of results across labs and specimens. “Ideally, by quantifying the Tat protein, we can predict patient outcomes, as we believe higher levels of Tat protein are going to correlate with poorer health,” Cirino said. “To date, no one has been able to demonstrate Tat as a viable biomarker due in large part to difficulties with antibody-based techniques.”