Dr. Chen and his research team are studying the cellular mechanisms of how HIV type 1 infection spreads within and between people.
While researchers have traditionally focused on understanding how cell-free virus can communicate HIV-1 infection, Dr. Chen has found that cell-cell interactions are particularly important for viral spread in vitro. Dr. Chen and his team study the cell biology of intercellular adhesive structures, called virological synapses, which enhance HIV-1 spread between cells. Using diverse imaging modalities, they are visualizing viral transmission through virological synapses, by detecting the movements of HIV-1 that are designed to express fluorescent or luminescent proteins. Dr. Chen is working to understand the role that virological synapses play in transmission during intravenous drug use, when needle sharing allows infected cells from one individual to gain direct access to the bloodstream of another individual. His research team is exploiting humanized mouse models (mice with human immune systems) to examine a plausible sequence of events that occurs during parenteral HIV transmission. Dr. Chen is testing the relative efficiency of cell-free versus cell-associated routes of infection, and is tracking viral dissemination in the first minutes and hours after viral challenge. Dr. Chen’s goal is to identify new strategies to interfere with viral transmission and dissemination.