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Two Canadian projects make headway into HIV

But a vaccine against infection remains elusive

By CAITLIN CRAWSHAW | JUN 09 2008

In February, Stephen Barr’s side project made Canadian headlines. “It was sort of a fishing expedition that I did in my own time and, towards the end, it looked like it was turning into something big,” he says modestly.

Dr. Barr, a molecular virologist and postdoctoral fellow at the University of Alberta, started the project at the University of Pennsylvania before his career shift to Edmonton in 2005. Despite having neither assistants nor the time to focus exclusively on the project, he managed to identify a gene called TRIM22 that can block HIV infection in cell cultures by preventing the assembly of the virus.

“If we can find ways to mimic the effects of TRIM22, or turn it on in people infected with HIV, this should lead to a beneficial outcome in stopping the spread of HIV,” he says. “It can’t stop [HIV] from getting into cells, but it can stop it from getting out.” The discovery could lead to either better treatments for HIV infection or a vaccine in the long run, he says. The findings appear in a recent issue of the Public Library of Science Pathogens journal.

Meanwhile, halfway across the country, a team of researchers led by Professor Rafick-Pierre Sékaly at Université de Montréal also made headlines recently for an HIV-related discovery. The team announced that a protein called FOX03a, found in the DNA of some people, shields against viral attacks and could lead to the development of an HIV vaccine. The findings are in the March 2008 issue of Nature Medicine.

“HIV infection is characterized by the slow demise of T-cells, in particular central memory cells, which can mediate lifelong protection against viruses,” explains Dr. Sékaly. “Our group has found how the key protein, FOX03a, is vital to the survival of central memory cells that are defective in HIV-infected individuals.”

In addition to HIV infection, the protein may lead to treatments for other diseases that affect the immune system as well as for cancer, says Elias El Haddad, a co-investigator and professor in the department of microbiology and immunology at U de Montréal.

This is all music to the ears of Mark Wainberg, director of the McGill AIDS Centre at McGill University and one of Canada’s leading AIDS researchers. Despite what he sees as a lack of government funding in this area, HIV researchers are succeeding. “I think Canadian science represents the biggest bang for the buck compared to any country,” he says. “Our scientific output – as illustrated by these two papers – is simply outstanding.”

Dr. Wainberg attributes this success to the strong work ethic of Canadian scientists. “We work harder, I really mean that. I think we’re highly motivated to want to succeed, to make a difference.”

Dr. Haddad agrees. “We’re stretching ourselves to get money from here and there in order to be competitive with other countries,” he says. Nevertheless, he believes Canada is one of the top five countries in the world for HIV research.

Even with the recent discoveries, an HIV vaccine is still likely 10 to 15 years away, and that’s a best-case scenario, says Dr. Haddad. But, he adds, “the more funds we have available, the quicker we can get to answering all of the questions we have and chasing these promising leads.”

Dr. Wainberg agrees that an HIV vaccine remains elusive. The two recent discoveries are good basic science research that will help the field, he says, “but we don’t want to give false hope to anyone. These aren’t studies that are going to lead towards improved treatments for HIV in the near future, nor are they going to result in a cure any time soon.”

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