SFU researchers study “elite controllers” of HIV


By Graham Cook

One in 300 HIV patients are naturally equipped to control the disease

SFU scientists Mark Brockman and Zabrina Brumme have recently teamed up with doctors at the Ragon Institute on a study of how people progress from HIV to AIDS. The Ragon Institute, established in February 2009 at Massachusetts General Hospital, MIT, and Harvard, exists with the aim to successfully develop an HIV/AIDS vaccine.

Human immunodeficiency virus, HIV, attacks a person’s immune system in the vital cells, including helper T cells, causing the body to become susceptible to infection. In the vast majority of cases, infection with this virus eventually leads to acquired immunodeficiency syndrome, or AIDS. Once the patient has progressed this far, their immune system begins to fail to a greater extent, allowing for progressively more detrimental infections.

However, Dr Brockman and Dr Brumme — associate professors in molecular biology and biochemistry, and molecular epidemiology of infectious diseases respectively — came to the understanding that one in 300 patients is an “elite controller.” An elite controller is able to naturally control their HIV infection without the use of drugs. Basically, this type of patient’s immune system manages the virus to such an extent that they never develop AIDS. However, this number has also been reported to be as rare as one in 500. The pair worked with colleagues from the United States, Germany, and Japan to contribute to a study of this patient type.

This research helped to discover why these extremely rare elite controllers can resist the virus so effectively. This is determined by whether or not their immune system attacks the virus with killer-T cells, formally known as Cytotoxic T Lymphocyte Cells. If this cell could be generated, it would open up the possibility for scientists to design a functional vaccine. This medication would be intended to prevent the virus and help patients deal with it, instead of curing HIV, due to the fact that once one is infected, there is no known way to remove the virus.

Both Brockman and Brumme spoke with The Peak about their recent research. They explained that the human body has a variety of reactions to HIV, ranging from minimal resistance to an elite controller. One notable example of someone whose body has dealt with HIV well is former NBA superstar and Olympic gold medalist Magic Johnson. Johnson is not actually a reported elite controller, yet he has survived for more than two decades with the virus.

Dr Brockman shared concern that the study had been labelled a breakthrough. He stated that, “scientific advancements come in two flavours. . . . There are studies that really tell you something that was completely unknown and you’re learning something new for the first time, and then there are studies used to confirm what you think you know.” He continued, “I think this paper is a little more of the second and tells us that we’re on the right track . . . that what we think we know about these elite controllers is probably true.” However, Brockman added that the study is still important.

HIV and AIDS continue to be major problems worldwide. Recent estimates from the World Health Organization state that there are over 30 million people currently living with HIV or AIDS.