Canadian HIV Researcher Gets Back to Basics

TORONTO, Dec. 1, 2014 (GLOBE NEWSWIRE) -- Basic science is helping to inform new discoveries in HIV vaccine research. A Canadian research team is conducting studies to better understand how the immune system responds to HIV.

"There is currently no vaccine that is effective against HIV. We don't yet fully understand the basic science and immunology of HIV that will lead to an effective HIV vaccine. This research gets back to basics," says Dr. Mario Ostrowski, whose work on several different projects is funded by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the Department of Foreign Affairs, Trade and Development Canada through the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative (CHVI).

Using human and animal studies, Ostrowski's research focuses on how the virus enters the body at the mucosal tissues which include the genital tract and the gut. He explains that most vaccines currently being explored are delivered in the muscle, but it remains unclear if those vaccines make strong immune responses at the sites where the virus gets into the body — the gut or genital tracts. Using information gained from a trial conducted in Thailand five years ago — which showed some promise by providing 30 per cent efficacy against HIV — Ostrowski hopes to better understand how the virus binds to the surface of mucosal cells in the cervix.

He proposes targeting HIV right where it enters the body. "In order to test potential new vaccines, we have to understand how the immune system is working at those sites," he says. Based at the University of Toronto, Ostrowski is working collaboratively with research teams at the University of Nairobi, Kenya, where they obtain gut and genital biopsies from trial volunteers.

Another area of his work is examining possible ways of boosting vaccine efficacy through natural immune molecules called adjuvants. His team is also trying to understand whether they can target different parts of the virus with antibodies.

In another study, Ostrowski and fellow Canadian scientists are testing a vaccine made from a shingles vaccine, called VZV, because like HIV, shingles persists in the body for life, so it could mimic the same kind of immune response that is needed to combat HIV. Ostrowski is also studying innate immunity in the gut, looking for ways to activate the immune system potentially through oral vaccines to see if they are more effective than via standard needle intra-muscular delivery.

While some of his projects have led to negative results, Ostrowski says the research offers new insights into HIV vaccines because it eliminates what doesn't work. "In HIV we have a huge list of disease targets. This work helps us strike through some of those," he says. "These are mainly pre-clinical trials. We hope that through this work we will have ideas to test in monkey and human models in the future. We hope to develop a few candidates that could be tested in clinical trials."

The CHVI brings together five Government of Canada Departments/Agencies and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to advance progress on HIV vaccine research and development efforts. It also contributes to the prevention of mother-to-child transmission. The establishment of the CHVI Research and Development Alliance Coordinating Office (ACO) at the International Centre of Infectious Diseases in Winnipeg in 2011 has facilitated information exchange, collaboration and coordination across diverse national and international research efforts.

World AIDS Day is celebrated annually on December 1 to raise awareness about HIV/AIDS and demonstrate international solidarity in the face of the pandemic.

For more information, contact:
Renée Barclay,
Communications Specialist, Alliance Coordinating Office
International Centre for Infectious Diseases

Source:International Centre for Infectious Disease