HIV continues to spread at an alarming rate of 2.5 million new infections worldwide per year. Untreated, once it develops into AIDS, it is fatal. With treatment, someone who is HIV positive can expect to live a normal life span. But the costs are prohibitive: global investment in combating HIV/AIDS was US$ 16.8 billion in 2011. In order to arrest the global epidemic, a cure is desperately needed. It is to this end that researchers have turned their considerable talents.
When AIDS was first identified in 1981, it terrified like few other illnesses. Its origins were mysterious and it was spreading rapidly. All that was known was that it destroyed the patient’s immune system and was, without exception, fatal.
Thanks largely to the work of Dr. Mark Wainberg, the Lady Davis
Institute has been at the forefront of research into HIV and AIDS. Among his
achievements was the identification of the anti-HIV activity of one of the
first effective anti-retroviral drugs, known as 3TC, which had a major impact
on lengthening the life expectancy of individuals infected with the virus.
Indeed, he proudly notes, a 25-year-old in
Dr. Wainberg is proud of the role that he and his international colleagues have played in transforming HIV infection from what was a horrible prognosis prior to the development of 3TC and other drugs into a situation in which long-term treatment success is now the norm. Millions of lives worldwide have been saved due to their efforts.
However, he is quick to point out, that is not the case in less
developed parts of the world, such as southern
“Though the infection may appear to have been eliminated, the virus actually remains in a dormant state,” he explains. “It is only held at bay by the anti-retrovirals. If ever the patient stops taking them, it comes roaring back. The objective of our research is to purge these reservoirs of latent cells, thereby eliminating all of the HIV from the body.”
One prospective approach is to discover a way to activate these latent cells so that they produce the virus, thereby exposing themselves and rendering them vulnerable to existing drug therapies. This requires new insights into the mechanisms that allow HIV to hide.
“Here at the LDI, we have every bit as much talent as any other institution in the world,” Dr. Wainberg affirms. And, indeed, few investigators personify this more than Dr. Wainberg himself, who was awarded the prestigious 2012 Killam Prize in Health Science, and is a member of both the Order of Canada and Order of Quebec and a Chevalier of France’s Legion of Honour, as well as the recipient of several honourary degrees.
“We continue to make progress and hope to make a significant contribution to this great discovery that will eradicate AIDS.”
He says that he would be disappointed if a cure is not within sight in the next five years. However, funding, necessary to ensure the continuity of this critical research and for recruiting the graduate students and post-doctoral fellows to the LDI who will not only do the work of today, but will receive the training necessary to further the next generation of research, is an on-going challenge.
HIV/AIDS Research Axis
Research emanating from the HIV/AIDS Axis has resulted in important discoveries in anti-retroviral drugs that have prolonged life, progress against drug resistance, and continuing progress toward finding a cure. It is a major component of the McGill AIDS Centre.
Led by Dr. Mark Wainberg (an internationally recognized scientist who is well known for his initial identification of 3TC as an anti-viral drug, in collaboration with BioChem Pharma Inc, in 1989, as well as for multiple contributions to the field of HIV drug resistance), the Axis brings together a cross-section of investigators, whose efforts to understand the fundamental science of the condition includes studies on host factors, innate immunity, epidemiology, and drug development. Its research is at the forefront of international efforts to advance the search for novel therapeutics, and to bring scientific achievement from the lab-bench to the bedside.
Much of the research focuses on interactions
between cellular factors known to block viral replication and virological
factors that can antagonize the effects of such cellular proteins. Research is
also ongoing on the identification of new drugs to combat HIV and the
development of an HIV vaccine. Research by members of the group has given rise
to an important community initiative known as Project SPOT, which is focused on
preventing new HIV infections. It involves scientists at several
HIV/AIDS axis members average 20 publications per year in the scientific literature. They are also regularly sought-after as commentators by local and national media outlets.
Support the work of Dr. Wainberg and his fellow researchers in the HIV/AIDS Research Axis in the Lady Davis Institute and contribute to advance the search for novel therapeutics and, ultimately, a cure for this terrible disease.