A portrait of Rhea Tammireddi.
Rhea Tammireddi received support from the VCU Internship Funding Program. (Tom Kojcsich, University Marketing)

VCU student spends summer researching new HIV treatment

Through internship program, Rhea Tammireddi was able to pursue her interest in virology.

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Virginia Commonwealth University biology major Rhea Tammireddi spent the summer researching an experimental HIV treatment.

Tammireddi, who is a sophomore, grew up in Northern Virginia and learned about the research internship at a lab run by Fatah Kashanchi, Ph.D., virology director at the Laboratory of Molecular Virology at George Mason University. She was excited about applying for the position. She knew she would gain experience and learn a lot.

“I have an interest in virology,” Tammireddi said. “Obviously because of COVID. Also, from doing research here (at VCU) on a different virus. Virology is so important right now given monkeypox and other viruses.”

Before she could accept the internship, she had to confront some financial challenges. Normally, Tammireddi works in the summer as a tutor to earn money. But the internship was unpaid, limiting her ability to earn money during the summer. She applied for the VCU Internship Funding Program, a new program at VCU that helps students fund summer internships. She was awarded $5,000, the maximum amount.

“I am really glad that they were able to offer me this money,” she said. “I would have been able to do the internship without the money, but the money helped so I didn’t have to find a job at night. I could really just focus on the research.”

The research looked at a new treatment for HIV. Currently, the main treatment for HIV is cART (combined antiretroviral therapy). The treatment was developed in the 1990s and requires HIV patients to consume a cocktail of medications.

“CART works by reducing the level of HIV virus in your blood, but the virus still remains in your blood,” Tammireddi said. “We were looking at stopping the actual replication of HIV, so it doesn’t spread anymore. We were looking at a specific drug that could be added to cART to help fully treat the virus.”

The work was difficult but rewarding. She conducted experiments on cell cultures. Some of the cells contained HIV and others did not. One of the processes required 10 different steps. She was in the lab from early in the morning until late at night. In the evenings, she conducted data analysis and did further research on HIV.

Tammireddi is planning to attend medical school after her undergraduate work at VCU is finished, but she can see herself continuing to do research. Working in a lab is important for medicine, and she wants to find a way to advance medical understanding.

“I really liked doing a lot of the research, and research is the backend of medicine,” Tammireddi said. “We are doing the research that will be applied to patients. I think (the internship) is a step in the right direction. I want to continue to do research.”