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Monash HIV research recognised

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4 April 2011

Dr Suha Saleh and Dr Megan Crane
Dr Suha Saleh and Dr Megan Crane

Two Monash post-doctoral scientists have received prestigious fellowships from the American Foundation for AIDS Research (amfAR).

Dr Megan Crane and Dr Suha Saleh are Research Fellows in the HIV and Hepatitis Immunopathogenesis Laboratory, co-headed by Professor Sharon Lewin and Dr Paul U. Cameron in the Department of Medicine at Monash University. Professor Lewin is the Director of the Infectious Diseases Unit, Alfred Hospital; Professor of Medicine at Monash and co-head, Centre for Virology, Burnet Institute.

Dr Crane has been awarded a two year Krim Fellowship from amfAR for her project, LPS, immune activation and liver disease in HIV-HBV co-infection. Dr Crane is the first Australian scientist to receive this award, worth US $125,000.

Dr Crane began working with Professor Lewin in 2007 after finishing her PhD at Monash Institute of Medical Research, in the immunology of the male reproductive tract. She is now collaborating closely with clinicians at The Alfred Hospital Infectious Diseases Unit.

“HIV affects the immune cell barrier of the gut, making it more permeable to bacteria, thereby allowing an increased load of bacterial products into the circulation. This places a greater burden on the liver, which clears pathogens and impurities. When people are infected with both HIV and Hepatitis B (HBV), they progress to liver disease faster than people infected only with hepatitis B,"

"We believe that a greater bacterial burden promotes inflammation in the liver and this is the underlying cause of accelerated liver disease in people with both HIV and HBV. There are striking similarities with respect to inflammation in the liver in these people and in people suffering from diseases of chronic inflammation such as rheumatoid arthritis. It is possible that drugs currently used for managing inflammation might also be used for HIV-HBV infected patients,”Dr Crane said.

Dr Suha Saleh in the Lewin/Cameron Laboratory (HIV and Hepatitis Immunopathogenesis) has also been awarded a two year fellowship, worth a total of US$125,000 for her project as part of a recent call for medical research projects relevant to exploring the mechanisms for HIV persistence and the potential for HIV eradication.

The fellowship will support Dr Saleh's work to identify the mechanisms of how chemokines help HIV to get into resting cells and establish latent infection.

“HIV is a clever virus, able to transform and hide itself inside healthy cells. The main reservoir, or hiding place, is a cell type in the immune system called a resting memory CD4+T cell. HIV can’t be eradicated with antiviral drugs, as the drugs do not recognise the virus particles inside resting cells. Resting memory cells ‘remember’ previous infections, and can be activated for attack if those same pathogens are detected again. These infected resting cells are very long lived, as we are. Hence, once infected with HIV, they are time bombs, as when the cells become active, HIV will also become active even though only one in a million resting cells are infected. Our group has recently shown how these resting cells can be infected in the laboratory.

“My research is investigating the mechanism of how HIV enters a resting cell. We have found that proteins called chemokines which are involved in guiding the movement of infection fighting T cells around the body, are also critical in allowing latent infection in resting cells to be established. If we can identify the exact pathways which lead to latent infection, we will be in a position to develop novel therapies to block or reverse latent HIV infection,” Dr Saleh said.