Burnet's promising young researchers recognised

Burnet Institute

21 September, 2014

Image: Kieran Cashin hopes the PhenoSeq program will improve access to anti-HIV drug Maraviroc.

By Lydia Hales

Congratulations to Burnet’s Kieran Cashin, who took first place in the Free Presentation section at the 2014 AMREP Early-Mid Career Researcher (EMCR) Conference.

Mr Cashin is a PhD student in the Gorry Lab of Burnet’s Centre for Biomedical Research.

Although he gets nervous and found the experience daunting, Mr Cashin said it was exciting being awarded first place considering there were so many high quality presentations about interesting research during the conference.

“As an AMREP event, even though we work in such close proximity to each other we often don’t know exactly what other people are working on,” he said.

“So it was good to hear what all the researchers are doing.”

His presentation “A Reliable Computer Algorithm for Determining Receptor Usage of HIV” discussed PhenoSeq, an algorithm that predicts which of the cell-surface receptors (CCR5 or CXCR4) HIV binds to when entering immune system cells.

Maraviroc is an anti-HIV drug that binds to CCR5, blocking the entry of HIV. Because it is ineffective against HIV that uses CXCR4, laboratory tests are used to determine which form the client has before this drug is prescribed.

However, these tests are expensive and time-consuming, costing approximately USD$1,500 per client and taking four weeks to complete.

According to the WHO website, there were over 35 million people living with HIV globally in 2012, with the highest rates in Africa and South-East Asia.

Mr Cashin said much research has focused on the HIV subtype affecting Western countries, so current tests aren’t useful against the subtypes predominant in resource-constrained areas.

They are the first to develop specific programs for all subtypes of HIV. Only a small sample of blood is needed to isolate the genetic code of the virus, a practice that can be performed by most diagnostic laboratories worldwide usually within one day.

This information is then entered into the PhenoSeq program, which is freely available to anyone on the internet, and produces an instant result. It is hoped the program will improve access to Maraviroc.

Mr Cashin was also first author of a paper produced solely by researchers from Burnet’s Centre for Biomedical Research, which was recently accepted for publication with PLoS One.

The paper is titled “Covariance of charged amino acids at positions 322 and 440 of HIV-1 Env contributes to coreceptor specificity of subtype B viruses, and can be used to improve the performance of V3 sequence-based,” and is based on the same idea of computer programs using genetic code to predict whether a client’s HIV will be susceptible to Maraviroc.

Mr Cashin said current practice is to use only a short amount of genetic code, due to its cost-effectiveness.

Cashin and colleagues investigated the effect of extending the area being sequenced, and found that by including a new mutation in the HIV genetic code, they increased the predictive accuracy by approximately 10 percent.

Congratulations also to Dr Cath Latham, who received The Burnet Institute EMCR Poster Prize for her poster presentation “New drugs for HIV prevention: developing novel drug leads for use in drug-based HIV prevention strategies.”

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Burnet Institute

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