Ground-breaking HIV Research at WSU

Latest updates – Wednesday, 27-Feb-2013 9:56

Professor Chandia and his team hard at work.

Ground-breaking HIV Research at WSU

The HIV epidemic has had the greatest impact in sub-Saharan Africa (SSA) and mainly in East and Southern Africa with HIV prevalence in some parts going up to 40%. In recent years, considerable HIV research on prevention, treatment and care, and vaccine has been conducted in developed and many developing countries providing evidence-based knowledge to control the epidemic.

However, there have also been disappointing results in HIV prevention trials such as in HIV vaccine and microbicide trials. Despite these outcomes, important lessons have been learnt that help in designing future trials. Walter Sisulu University’s HIV Vaccine Research Unit (WSUHVRU) is gearing up to do the best it can in trying to address some of these gaps.

After two years of extensive work on effectively setting up WSUHVRU to meet the required standards in terms of resources which include staff, offices and laboratories, the unit lead by Professor Jimmy Chandia is ready to get its hands dirty. The first large scale project is a ground-breaking look at whether South Africa, specifically rural Mthatha, can find a vaccine from the ANTI-TAT protein.

The research project is underway and is being funded by the Italian government through a government to government agreement between Italy and South Africa to support the latter in its response to the HIV pandemic. The Italian government is represented by the Department of Foreign Affairs and the National Institute of Health (ISS) and South Africa by the National Department of Health and the Medical Research Council.

About 50 participants from the Health Centres used by the Faculty of Health Sciences for Community Based Education and Service (COBES) i.e. Ngangelizwe, Mlakulo, Baziya, Mbekweni and Gateway clinic and the Department of Health are being voluntarily tested.

The current burden of the disease in South Africa is about 5.7 million people infected with HIV, making the country one of the leading countries in the world in HIV prevalence. A comprehensive response to the infection focusing on prevention is the mainstay for fighting the pandemic. An effective, affordable and safe vaccine provides the most hope for scaling down the pandemic. The success in controlling other viral diseases such as polio, measles and smallpox using vaccines gives hope for controlling HIV.

“The study we are undertaking precedes the actual vaccine trial against HIV. This study involves HIV positive participants who are on antiretroviral drugs (ARVs) and those who are not on ARVs but are HIV positive,” explained Professor Chandia.

He continued that within the HIV virus there is a protein called TAT protein that has been found in research conducted in Italy to be important in facilitating the duplication or multiplication of the virus in the body.

“It seems that if one can get something to act against this protein that will help to slow down the multiplication of the virus if not allow the virus to not multiply at all. In other words anything which works against this protein is a potential vaccine. In similar studies it has been found that negative people, those not infected by HIV, have high levels of what is called the ANTI-TAT protein, the hypothesis is therefore that those people are being protected by this ANTI-TAT protein in addition to other factors involved in the protection against HIV infection,” explained Chandia.

He also clarified that because HIV changes shape quickly, mutating into different strains in different parts of the world it was crucial to try and see if the results of the studies done in Italy would be consistent with the findings here in rural Mthatha because the virus in Italy is definitely not the same in South Africa.

He went on to say that “They are currently taking blood samples from their participants to assess their ANTI-TAT protein levels and if indeed the high level of ANTI-TAT works against the multiplication of the HIV virus, they will expect people who have got high CD4 counts (those who are well protected in terms of their immunity) to have high levels of ANTI-TAT and vice versa for those with low ANTI-TAT,” said Chandia.

According to Professor Chandia If they are able to prove that ANTI-TAT reduces the multiplication of the HIV virus, the ANTI-TAT protein may well be on its way to becoming the sought after vaccine. WSUHVRU hopes that it will have something concrete on this promising study within a year or so.

In conclusion Chandia thanked the governments of Italy and South Africa, the sponsors ,the Italian Department of Foreign Affairs, the National Institute of Health(ISS) and the Medical Research Council for enabling WSUHVRU to make its contribution in the fight against the HIV pandemic through the search for an effective vaccine against HIV infection.

By Oyanga Ngalika