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U Biochemist Sundquist Receives National Honor For Research Into How HIV Assembles, Spreads

February 03, 2003 — Original research into how HIV assembles and spreads from cell to cell which may lead to new drugs to fight the disease has earned University of Utah biochemistry professor Wesley I. Sundquist, Ph.D., a national award from his peers.

Sundquist, in the U School of Medicine, is this year’s recipient of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) Amgen Award. He’ll receive the award in April in San Diego.

The ASBMB-Amgen Award goes to a new investigator–one not more than 15 years out from receiving a doctorate–for “significant achievements in the application of biochemistry and molecular biology to the understanding of disease.”

Sundquist has dedicated his research to unlocking the structural basis of HIV assembly and budding.

HIV is the virus that causes AIDS–the deadliest infectious disease and fourth leading cause of death in the world. More than 42 million people worldwide live with HIV or AIDS, and AIDS has killed more than 19 million people, including 425,000 Americans.

“HIV is obviously an important health problem,” Sundquist said. “I appreciate the support of the University of Utah research community. We’re excited about the progress we’re making and it’s a nice honor to have that recognized.”

Along with other U researchers, including U biochemistry professor Christopher P. Hill, Ph.D., Darrell R. Davis, Ph.D., professor of medicinal chemistry, and scientists from Salt Lake City-based Myriad Genetics, Sundquist has identified and characterized a key protein that helps HIV escape from cells, a process called budding. Without this protein, Tsg101, HIV cannot leave cells to spread in the body.

In his other major area of research Sundquist is studying the proteins Matrix and Capsid, which are key organizers of HIV. By looking at their three-dimensional structures, Sundquist hopes ultimately to understand how the proteins help assemble the virus core.

Identifying and understanding proteins is critical to develop drugs to attack HIV because drugs bind to proteins. With 75 percent of U.S. HIV patients resistant to at least one drug, and 15 percent of new HIV infections drug-resistant, finding new drugs is paramount, according to Sundquist.

U professor and biochemistry chair Dana Carroll, Ph.D., in nominating Sundquist for the award, said his success stems in no small part from the creativity and range of techniques he uses in his research.

“He has approached this topic with a full battery of experimental techniques, employing whatever methods seemed most likely to deliver the desired insights,” Carroll said. “The results of Wes’s efforts have been spectacular, and he has emerged as a leader in the fields of HIV research, virus assembly, and structural biology generally.”

In support of the nomination, Columbia University biochemist Stephen Goff wrote that Sundquist is “one of the most effective, innovative, and rigorous young scientists of his generation.”

MIT chemistry chair and Arthur Amos Moyes professor Stephen J. Lippard, whom Sundquist studied under while earning his doctorate, said his work is characterized by “beauty and elegance.”

“He has not published anything of less than great interest,” Lippard wrote.

When he receives the ASBMB-Amgen Award, which includes a sculpture, $5,000 gift, and $20,000 research grant, Sundquist will also deliver a lecture at the Experimental Biology meeting on April 12.