Target: HIV

Growing up in New York City in the 1980s and ’90s, Rachel Galimidi (PhD ’16) saw the devastating effects of AIDS-related illness on people close to her. She was determined to be part of the effort to find a cure.

In high school, she worked in the lab of leading HIV researcher Wayne Hendrickson at Columbia University. Throughout college at the University of Kansas, she followed news of the advances Caltech was making in the field. So when she graduated, she headed straight to Pasadena.

Unsure whether she wanted to pursue a graduate degree, she first joined the lab of Pamela Bjorkman, Caltech’s Centennial Professor of Biology, as a technician in 2006. What she experienced and observed there prompted her to earn her PhD, for which she was honored with Caltech’s 2016 Milton and Francis Clauser Doctoral Prize for original research. Now, as a Caltech postdoctoral scholar, Galimidi continues to be an important part of unlocking a critical puzzle in the search for an HIV cure.

Typically, antibodies function by using Y-shaped arms to bind to the spikes on the surface of a virus. But the HIV spikes are too far apart, making it difficult for natural antibodies to latch on and take them out. Bjorkman’s lab determined that they could expand the reach of antibodies by genetically taking pairs of binding sites, or arms, from Y-shaped antibodies and linking them with varying lengths of DNA.

Building these antibodies is time-consuming—and expensive. Galimidi spent five months creating DNA-based reagents in test tubes and introducing them into experiments. After making 500 or so reagents, she finally started to see results—including combinations that are more than 100 times better than our bodies’ own defenses at binding to and neutralizing HIV.

Because of the high cost and limited availability of DNA, her team’s current goal is to find an all-protein reagent that will translate easily into broader therapeutic applications. The researchers hope to have something for clinical trials soon.

There are two reasons breakthroughs of this scale can happen at Caltech, Galimidi says. The first is Caltech’s intimate, quick-to-collaborate culture.

“I know that a lot of the work we did for this project wouldn’t have happened had it not been for the interdisciplinary nature of Caltech,” Galimidi says. “I have mentors outside of my advisers and my committee members—and they all really care about my progress.”

The second reason: access to funds and resources—in this case, thousands of dollars worth of DNA and opportunities to attend important conferences. Without funding, the intellectual freedom to pursue bold research would be pointless. Caltech’s ability to provide support motivates students to think far beyond their disciplines’ existing boundaries.

“I hope to have a lot more discoveries in the future—and it would all be because of my time here. ”
- Rachel Galimidi

Those funds often come from donors who see Caltech as an institution that reflects their own way of thinking about the world. Elon Musk, for example, contributed $25,000 to an additional HIV project that Galimidi worked on with an undergraduate student.

“Having that opportunity from Elon Musk allowed us to do work we hadn’t been able to do before,” Galimidi says. “I’m really grateful for all the nontraditional support we get. It’s so important for us to be able to do our work. I hope to have a lot more discoveries in the future—and it would all be because of my time here.”

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