A joint center for research headed by Emory University and the University of North Carolina (UNC) will be created with an $18 million grant from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) over the next five years.
Though the UNC/Emory Center for Innovative Technology (iTech) will not have a physical location, the collaborative research effort will allow seven institutions to study HIV prevention and suppression in adolescents through hosting and managing various technology-themed research projects.
All studies will be managed and led by Rollins School of Public Health Professor of Epidemiology Patrick Sullivan and UNC School of Medicine Associate Professor Lisa Hightow-Weidman. Sullivan and Hightow-Weidman said they will to launch the iTech website as soon as possible.
The goal of the research is to develop and provide HIV prevention resources that are more easily accessible to members of the younger population, Sullivan said. She and Hightow-Weidman plan to conduct six HIV-related research projects and to create apps and websites that help HIV-positive and at-risk individuals maintain a medication regimen. Such routines could include Pre-Exposure Prophylaxis (PrEP) and other HIV prevention medication, scheduling diagnostic appointments and informing individuals about HIV testing and prevention resources.
“If we can find a website or a mobile app that is effective in helping young gay and bi men reduce their risk of HIV, we can then … reach a high number of men at a low incremental cost,” Sullivan said.
With limited resources being allocated to competing health priorities such as obesity epidemics and Zika concerns, Sullivan stressed the importance of continuing to develop cost-effective tools that will reach a large population.
“We’d like to be able to use technology to prevent infections in young people at risk, and for those that are infected to ensure that they are engaging in care and that they are taking antiretroviral [drugs] to the point of maximum viral suppression,” Hightow-Weidman said.
Though the grant will be distributed over the next five years, Hightow-Weidman hopes to see the center’s research applied in the public within the first year of the grant.
“We are hoping to be in the field by early 2017,” Hightow-Weidman said.
The project’s funding came from the Eunice Kennedy Shriver National Institute of Child Health and Human Development, a branch of NIH which conducted a competitive selection process to determine where it would allocate the grant funds.
“[NIH] invited all kinds of institutions to propose a center, or a collection of research projects with a theme, that would address the issue of HIV in adolescents, so we chose HIV focusing on young men who have sex with men,” Sullivan said.
According to Sullivan, the comprehensive, over 1,000-page application he and Hightow-Weidman submitted scored competitively and highly enough to receive approval for the five-year scope of work.