A Local Foundation, a Little-Known College, and a Potential HIV and Cancer Breakthrough

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It’s likely you haven’t heard of Touro University Nevada — a branch of a Jewish-sponsored private nonprofit university system with a couple dozen undergraduate and graduate campuses in the U.S., as well as a few international locations. The small Las Vegas-area school is focused on health education, and approximately 1,400 students attend its College of Health and Human Services and its College of Osteopathic Medicine.

Founded in 2004, the school is known in Nevada for the educational and healthcare resources it provides. What Touro University Nevada is not known for is being a major research institution. Until recently, it operated just one research lab. So it was something of a surprise a few weeks ago when researchers there published findings that shed new light on a crucial but incompletely understood aspect of HIV — specifically, how the virus infects cells and spreads, causing the illnesses associated with HIV and AIDS.

The Touro Nevada study, published in August in the science journal Nature Communications, has identified a previously unknown molecular process by which HIV enters the normally well-protected nuclei of healthy cells, where it can then hijack the cells’ DNA to replicate itself and start the disease-causing process of infection. The Touro Nevada researchers also identified three proteins that the virus uses to tunnel into the cell nuclei. With that knowledge, they even developed early versions of potential drugs to target the proteins and block the viral infection. Although existing antiretroviral drugs can keep viral loads low in HIV-positive people, there's still no vaccine or cure for HIV/AIDS.

But wait, there's more. The infection pathway the researchers identified is relevant to many other serious diseases, such as cancer and Alzheimer's, and could lead to new therapies for those conditions, according to the study’s senior author, Aurelio Lorico, interim chief research officer at Touro University Nevada College of Osteopathic Medicine. 

None of the lab's research would have been possible without support from a Nevada philanthropy called the Engelstad Foundation, which is an important benefactor for Touro Nevada, but, like the school, tends to fly beneath the radar. The foundation has been one of the school's largest supporters over the years, granting it more than $8 million for scholarships, biomedical and human performance research, disaster response training and mobile healthcare.

Engelstad has been backing education in Nevada since the start of this century. The foundation was created by Ralph Engelstad, who, before his death in 2002, made millions in real estate and as the owner of the Las Vegas casino-hotel Imperial Palace. Since its establishment, the foundation has donated hundreds of millions to Nevada communities with a focus on education, including to the University of Nevada Las Vegas (UNIV), and for assistance to disabled people.

Medical education and research has also been a big interest, with millions going to the Nevada Cancer Institute and to help open Roseman University of Health Sciences, another private medical school in Nevada. (For more on a controversial side of Engelstad's Nevada education philanthropy, take a look at our 2018 story about Engelstad's decision to rescind a $14 million gift to UNLV when trustees objected to the school's firing of then-president Len Jessup.)

It's a common notion in philanthropy that private supporters of science — while providing less grant money, overall, than public sources like the NIH (though maybe not that much less) — have the uniquely valuable ability to fund novel but exciting research ideas, much more so than comparatively risk-averse government funders. But we at IP, and some scientists, have found that philanthropic funders can be pretty conservative, too — for example, by funding established researchers year after year at the same big-name institutions.

The Engelstad Foundation's support for Touro Nevada looks like a case of science philanthropy actually walking the walk by backing more unconventional research angles and reaping the rewards. In fact, the viral infection pathway study started out as cancer research — an effort to understand how cancer spreads, or metastasizes, throughout the body. The team weren't even virologists, Lorico said, and couldn't compete for government grants with major institutions operating hundreds or thousands of biomedical labs.

"Ninety percent of cancer deaths are due to metastasis," Lorico said. "There needs to be communication between cancer cells and other cells in the body for the formation of cancer metastasis." That communication must involve getting messages into the nuclei of new cells, and studying that process led the researchers to study how HIV spread, subsequently leading to their discovery of the HIV protein pathway into the nucleus of cells.

"The pathway is the same and can have the same function," Lorico said. "In one case, you have a viral infection; in one case, you have a pro-metastatic function." An interaction among the three proteins the Touro Nevada researchers identified is needed for the cell nucleus invasion to be successful, and so targeting any of these proteins could halt viral infections or cancer metastases.

Much more research is required to see if this could lead to useful treatments. But Lorico said the study has generated interest among researchers around the world. Already, the Touro scientists are in the process of partnering with 20 or more teams of investigators, including some at other Touro University branches, to study potential new treatment avenues based on the findings.

The study itself was a collaboration of researchers from Touro University Nevada College of Osteopathic Medicine, Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York, researchers from the Biotechnology Center (BIOTEC) of TUD Dresden University of Technology in Germany, and researchers from Italy. Other researchers are also considering how the new insight could apply to the complex problem of Alzheimer's disease, Lorico said, for which effective treatments have so far proved maddeningly elusive.

Meanwhile, support from the Engelstad Foundation will continue to be essential, said Andrew Priest, Touro Nevada’s campus president, as the researchers advance their study of potential therapeutics for cancer, HIV and other diseases. Touro Nevada is also now in the process of launching a couple more biomedical labs.

“As a small university that wants to compete in the international arena, philanthropy and the Engelstad Foundation are essential," Priest said. "It's hard for us as a small institution to compete for an NIH grant or other grants like that because we don't have big footprint. We look at philanthropy as a mechanism to help us take this research to the next level."