New SAAVI principal investigators named

15 May 2006

The Medical Research Council's South African AIDS Vaccine Initiative (SAAVI) has welcomed two new principal investigators to their team, Professor Girish Kotwal, chair of medical virology HSC, and head of the Division of Medical Virology at the Institute for Infectious Disease and Molecular Medicine, and his colleague Dr Jo Ann Passmore, a lecturer in the division.

They swell the numbers of those already funded, including the division's Professor Anna Lise Williamson and Associate Professor Carolyn Williamson. Both have had their funding renewed for another three years, allowing them to renew efforts to develop a vaccine against HIV and AIDS.

Passmore and colleague, postdoctoral scholar Dr Darren Martin, have also received Wellcome Trust Career Awards, recognising the status and value of their research endeavours.

"It's a far cry from recent publicity about new and young postdoctoral investigators having no opportunities in South Africa," Kotwal said.

Kotwal, who is a senior Wellcome Trust Fellow for Biomedical Sciences in South Africa, says that from a vaccine perspective his team is developing a new candidate vector that can be used in expressing HIV genes. These are assays that can fit into any vaccine trial, especially HIV vaccine trials.

"Vectors form the basis for new vaccines and the ones presently being used for HIV have not panned out," Kotwal said. "We need new directions similar to those already developed." The current pox virus being used has become so safe that it no longer generates an immune response.

"We need to tweak the virus's genome and remove those genes that are neurovirulent, making it safe but at the same time strong enough to elicit an immune response."

Viruses like HIV are "extremely smart" he said, adding that it is important to tell the public that knowledge acquired and the funds invested in gene research were insufficient in finding a cure.

"We need deeper understanding of all aspects of the virus and not just its genes. The scientific enterprise has to be multi-disciplinary and based on the synergy of endeavour in the application of knowledge."

Earlier this month his diagnostic laboratory received accreditation from SANAS (the South African National Accreditation System). Though the laboratory provides a diagnostic service to Groote Schuur Hospital, it also supports an important research component in the division.

"It is the foremost laboratory on the continent for clinical trials in humans."

Passmore studies focus on HIV immune responses at the vaginal mucosal surface; one of the major routes by which HIV gains entry to the body, establishes an infection, and is transmitted.

"Despite the recognised importance of these genital mucosal sites and the central role of good immune responses to HIV at these sites of viral entry and transmission this area of research has been largely neglected," she said.

Until now, most studies have focused exclusively on immune responses in the blood.

"Similarly, recent studies in primates have confirmed that immune responses following HIV infection are much stronger at the cervix and only later spread to the blood."

Passmore's present study investigates whether the number and functional ability of HIV-specific immune cells present at the cervix of HIV-infected women differs from those present in the blood in early and established infection.

"Because little information is available on immune responses present at the cervix and cells from this site are challenging to collect, the development of methods to measure immune responses at the cervix against HIV will be useful both for understanding mechanisms of virus transmission and for use in future HIV vaccine studies."

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