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KZN scientist makes HIV/Aids breakthrough

Differences in the rate of development of Aids among HIVinfected people have led KZN investigators to identify a tiny subset of “HIV controllers” who possess rare protective genes that incapacitate the virus.

It is hoped these new discoveries may ultimately lead to a vaccine against HIV/Aids.

Thumbi Ndungu is a Durban scientist whose research team may be on its way to finding meaningful answers to the HIV vaccine question. Credit: INLSA

Among these investigators is a young KZN scientist Thumbi Ndung’u, who has been awarded a R5 million US Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI) International Early Career Scientist Award over five years, to delve deeper into the workings of immune genes in an effort to find a vaccine to fight HIV.

Ndung’u is the scientific director of the University of KwaZulu-Natal’s HIV Pathogenesis Programme in Durban and associate professor in HIV/Aids research.

Delighted with the news of the award, Ndung’u said it would enable researchers in KZN to study in greater detail interaction of immune genes with HIV.

“We can begin to test whether we can use this knowledge to develop vaccines.”

The key focus of his research is on how the body fights HIV infection and more specifically the workings of the body’s immune proteins that can block or fight off HIV infection.

Recently Ndung’u’s team has unravelled the mechanism of an immune protein called HLA-B*81 and how it can protect against HIV by acting as a red flag that alerts the immune system to the presence of HIV, followed by incapacitation of the virus.

“My passion is to help find some answers to a disease which has baffled scientists and caused so much death and destruction.”

The grant, says Ndung’u, will also enable him to support younger scientists to develop their academic careers.

“These opportunities are like gold. I am hopeful that right here in Durban, we can generate new knowledge and make a significant contribution to developing an effective vaccine against HIV/Aids.”

Figures from the Aids Foundation of SA show that KwaZulu-Natal has the highest burden of HIV in the country – at 39.5 percent.

Ndung’u said that UKZN scientists had played a key role in the discovery that certain Human Leukocyte Antigen (HLA) molecules could partly protect against HIV and were now engaged in new research to understand the exact mechanisms.

“Trying to understand why some people control HIV without antiretroviral drugs has been an incredible journey involving many scientists and students,” he says.

Unrecognisable

“We are only now beginning to understand that some immune genes are able to target the invading virus, forcing it to change so that it won’t be recognised. During this process the virus is “crippled” or becomes less fit and less virulent, thus protecting the infected individual from developing Aids.”

The next “giant” step, he says, will be to understand additional protective mechanisms and how the virus compensates for the attacks being made on it by the immune system in individuals who eventually develop Aids.

Ultimately, says Ndung’u, researchers want to investigate whether it is possible to make a vaccine that mimics or improves the immune system’s capabilities of making the virus less virulent.

Ndung’u praised research colleagues and clinic staff for assisting his team with the work of identifying patients who had different rates of disease progression.

Harnessing this knowledge for the good of society, he says, and finding a vaccine that will mimic these protective responses will be a challenge.

“But we are ready for the long haul, and we have some gifted, creative and devoted young people determined to make a mark in this field,” he said.

Ndung’u was chosen as one of 28 recipients of the HHMI award from 800 applicants worldwide. - The Mercury

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