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Burnet @ AIDS 2014: At the forefront of cutting edge HIV research

Tracy Parish

30 June, 2014

“I know the work we do at Burnet contributes to understanding HIV and ultimately, will help solve the problem.” - Professor Paul Gorry

Find out more about Burnet @ AIDS 2014.

Since its early years, Burnet Institute’s world-class researchers have been at the forefront of HIV research in Australia and internationally.

Groundbreaking discoveries have forged an enviable reputation for our HIV research groups and opened doors to international collaborations.

Our Centre for Biomedical Research fosters world-leading HIV research groups engaged in distinct, yet complementary areas of HIV research, which provides a strong critical mass of local expertise, crucial for fostering cutting edge, internationally competitive research.

The strong clinical focus of the Institute’s HIV laboratories and close ties with the Department of Infectious Diseases at Monash University enables laboratory access to valuable patient cohorts, which ensures that the work we do remains focused on the clinical problem and can be translated to tangible outcomes that can benefit patients.

In the Gorry Laboratory, their research focuses on understanding how HIV gains entry into cells of the immune system, which comprise the very earliest steps in the virus life cycle. Understanding these steps is important if we are going to develop new treatments, a vaccine, or even a cure.

They are looking at how HIV infects long-lived cells of the immune system such as macrophages and the newly-described stem memory T cells. Because of the long-lived nature of these immune cells, their infection with HIV is a major obstacle for strategies that are presently aiming to eradicate HIV from the body.

Their work has shown that the efficiency with which HIV can bind to and enter cells can change during the course of infection, and this can lead to more rapid destruction of immune cells. We are presently determining the extent to which this occurs in an African cohort of subjects infected with HIV, which is important for development of novel drugs and vaccines.

As well as infecting the immune system, HIV can also invade the brain, which can cause anything from a mild neurocognitive disorder to more severe HIV-associated dementia.

Professor Gorry’s team is working with Burnet’s Associate Professor Melissa Churchill in determining how HIV can penetrate the central nervous system. We have been determining the mechanisms by which HIV can bind to and enter susceptible brain cells. Because the brain is ‘immune privileged’ (it is able to tolerate the introduction of antigens without eliciting an inflammatory immune response), HIV can adopt less ‘defensive’ structures because it doesn’t need to shield itself from the immune system, and can thereby infect cells using altered and likely more efficient mechanisms.

The research has led to the development of new web-based computer programs, which by analysing the genetic sequence of HIV in patients, can predict whether a particular patient is likely to respond to some HIV treatments.

The Gorry Laboratory is also committed to research training and has been supporting some of Australia’s most successful and productive PhD graduates. Dr Michael Roche, was awarded the Mollie Hollman Doctoral Medal from Monash University, one of the university’s highest honours. He was subsequently awarded the highly prestigious Frank Fenner Fellowship from the National Health and Medical Research Council, in recognition for being the top ranked Early Career Biomedical Fellowship nationwide.

Nurturing the careers of talented young scientists is critical in ensuring that medical research in Australia remains cutting edge.

Professor Gorry believes science is about answering questions and solving problems - HIV remains one of the world’s most devastating diseases and tackling it effectively depends on basic research into its biology. He stays motivated because he knows the research underway at Burnet contributes to understanding HIV and ultimately, will help solve the problem.

This article first appeared in a special HIV edition of IMPACT.

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Burnet Institute

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