UVic biomedical engineer “outsmarts” HIV

- Suzanne Smith

New groundbreaking research by University of Victoria biomedical engineer Stephanie Willerth has significantly advanced the understanding of HIV and how to treat it. Experts estimate that 38 million people worldwide are currently infected with HIV and 4.1 million more are diagnosed each year. In order to design effective long-term treatments, scientists need to learn more about how the virus mutates and develops resistance to medications.

The virus mutates at a very high rate, which is very problematic for HIV patients because the virus eventually develops resistance to medications,’’ explains Willerth, a faculty member in UVic’s Department of Mechanical Engineering and the Division of Medical Sciences.

Willerth and her team studied approximately 15,000 different versions of the virus—something that has never been done before. This information has allowed them to locate the specific genes of the virus that provided resistance to the drugs—knowledge that could help researchers develop more effective treatments for HIV.

“To study all of these different versions we have to replicate them millions of times, especially when it comes to complex viruses like HIV,” explains Willerth. “Because this research method requires a large amount of genetic material and there are obvious risks of duplicating highly contagious viruses, scientists have avoided doing this. Our research was unique because of the method we used—we isolated the genetic material from HIV, so that it was no longer alive, before we replicated it. This same method can be applied to other difficult-to-treat viruses such as swine flu, Ebola, influenza or even staphylococcus.”

After replicating the virus from a small sample obtained from a long-term HIV patient who had developed drug resistance to their treatment, Willerth and her team studied its genetic make-up using “next generation” DNA sequencing—a new method that allows researchers to study millions of molecules at a time.

Willerth’s current research involves working with stem cells. She is attempting to turn stem cells into neural tissue that could some day be transplanted to fix spinal cord injuries. “Down the road, people could benefit from this research because it could be used to replace diseased or damaged tissue. For example, if a person has a liver transplant—instead of having to wait for an organ donor, as a result of this research we could re-grow and transplant a liver for them made from their own cells.”

Willerth conducted her HIV research as a post-doc at the University of California, Berkeley. Her research findings are available at http://bit.ly/hD7KuO and her UVic lab website is www.engr.uvic.ca/~willerth/SMWLab/WebContent/index.shtml

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Keywords: biomedical engineering, disease, HIV, research

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