Researchers win grant to investigate HIV immunity

November 30, 2011

Researchers from Murdoch University and the University of Western Australia have won funding to investigate whether the responses of certain white blood cells to foreign cells can be harnessed to increase a person’s immunity to HIV.

Dr Lloyd D’Orsogna, Dr Mina John and Professor Simon Mallal from the Institute for Immunology and Infectious Diseases at Murdoch University and Dr Campbell Witt from UWA have been awarded a National Health and Medical Research Council (NHMRC) grant of almost $365,000 to carry out the three year laboratory-based project.

The new research will follow on from Dr D’Orsogna’s previous investigations into anti-viral white blood cells, also known as T-cells, which explained why there is such a strong immune response in a person against a transplanted organ.

“Anti-viral T-cells naturally react against foreign proteins called HLA molecules which can be found on the surface of foreign cells, like the cells that make up a donated organ,” said Dr D’Orsogna, who is based at Royal Perth Hospital and also works on research projects at UWA.

“But we also showed that these T-cells cannot tell the difference between viral proteins and the foreign proteins, reacting to both in the same way.

“In the new project we will be looking to use these T-cell properties against foreign proteins to stimulate an anti-HIV immune response.”

Dr D’Orsogna and his team plan to stimulate blood donated by people with HIV with foreign HLA proteins to see if this increases the number of anti-HIV T-cells and thus strengthens the immune response against the virus.

They will then stimulate blood donated by healthy volunteers with these same foreign proteins to see if this increases the immune response against the virus without actually exposing the person to the virus.

“Essentially this could be a strategy to increase the immune response against HIV in people who might be at risk of contracting HIV,” added Dr D’Orsogna.

“We envisage that if successful we could give people without HIV a blood transfusion which could potentially work like a vaccine, improving that person’s immunity to the HIV virus.”

Dr D’Orsogna said that this outcome was a long way off however and the study was only in its infancy.

“Clinical trials will not be performed at this stage,” he added. “But we are very happy to get the chance to fully investigate this strategy thanks to the grant.”

Dr D’Orsogna added that the team were looking for a PhD student to work on the project and that anyone interested should email him.

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