Ayalew Mergia, Ph.D.

Professor of Infectious Disease and Pathology

College of Veterinary Medicine

2012 Awardee

Ayalew Mergia’s research is focused on developing novel strategies to inhibit human immunodeficiency virus (HIV) replication and consequently limit AIDS pathogenesis.

The failure to target latently HIV-infected resting cells and the emergence of resistant viruses is a major impediment to drug therapy. An increasing prevalence of resistant viruses and the presence of latently infected resting CD4 cells carrying replication-competent HIV has been demonstrated in chronically infected individuals who are antiretroviral naïve, as well as in those who are receiving highly active antiretroviral therapy (HAART).

Using vectors based on a nonpathogenic foamy virus system as a vehicle to deliver antiviral genes, Mergia is targeting the HIV viral genome to combat infection. He has developed a strategy to restrict anti-viral gene expression in HIV infected cells to prevent any potential adverse effect to the host. In addition to targeting the HIV genome, Mergia has initiated an alternative strategy to combat HIV. Genetic based antiviral approaches that target the viral genome fail to demonstrate antiviral effects in clinical studies, let alone come close to achieving virus eradication. This is, in part, due to the fact that HIV evolves continuously and even targeting multiple regions in the viral genome cannot safe-guard against viral escape mutants.

Mergia’s continuing research strives to establish a combinatorial genetic based strategy to combat HIV by targeting viral genome and the inclusion of cellular factors which are effective inhibitors of HIV while protecting cells from viral entry.

A second research area involves studies of molecular mechanisms underlying the pathogenesis of the feline immunodeficiency virus (FIV). Mergia has conducted immunopathogenesis studies in cats infected with wild type or Orf-A defective FIV to establish the role of Orf-A in FIV pathogenesis.