COM researchers win $50K Pepsi grant

College of Medicine researchers (left to right) Alfred Lewin, a molecular geneticist, David Bloom, a virologist, and Sonal Tuli, an ophthalmologist, have teamed up to investigate a potential new therapy to prevent the recurrence of herpes. Photo by Sarah Kiewel

Researchers from UF’s College of Medicine received $50,000 in funding last week to continue work that may lead to a drug used to prevent recurrent outbreaks of herpes in people who have the disease.

The award came from a somewhat unusual source: soft drink giant PepsiCo.

The UF research team, led by principal investigator David C. Bloom, Ph.D., a professor of molecular genetics and microbiology in the college, registered the research project with the Pepsi Refresh Project. The Pepsi Refresh Project is an online program that allows people to vote for their favorite goodwill ideas. Each month, Pepsi awards a total of $1.3 million to the organizers of the most popular projects.

The herpes research project received enough votes in June to land in the top 10 projects for the month and receive $50,000.

The research will focus on a ribozyme known to block infections of herpes simplex virus 1, which causes ocular herpes and cold sores. Bloom and his team will investigate whether the ribozyme can be used to stop patients who already have the disease from experiencing recurring outbreaks.

“I think the thing that makes this research so promising is that it is a new approach to herpes treatment and has the potential to be effective even in cases where a patient has a drug- resistant strain of the virus,” Bloom said.

Other members of the research team include Gregory Schultz, Ph.D., a Florida Research Foundation professor in the college; Alfred S. Lewin, Ph.D., Sonal Tuli, M.D., an associate professor of ophthalmology; and doctoral students Levi Watson and Dan Gibson.

Schultz said the ribozyme also can be adapted for treatment of herpes simplex virus 2, which causes genital herpes and some forms of ocular herpes.

He said many people carry the virus “latently in our neurons, but only a small percentage of people have problems dealing with the reactivation of those.”

Schultz said the team aims to “destroy the RNA that the virus needs to replicate.”

“Hopefully this is a way to add to or even replace current therapies that actually don’t effectively deal with the virus,” he said.

A PepsiCo representative expressed hope that the research would yield new treatments for those suffering from herpes.

The money from PepsiCo will allow the research team to test the use of the ribozyme in animals. If it proves to be effective, Schultz said the next step would be to find a pharmaceutical company to fund further testing needed before the treatment could be available to humans.