Stories From the Field:


HIV Research in Durban, South Africa

Amy Chung, PhD, a post doctorate research fellow at the Ragon Institute, was granted a Center for Global Health Travel Award to spend three weeks in South Africa conducting HIV research with Thumbi Ndung’u at the University of KwaZulu-Natal.

Through the generous aid of an MGH Travel Award from the Center for Global Health, I was able to travel to Durban, South Africa to conduct HIV research at the HIV Pathogenesis Program (HPP), University of KwaZulu-Natal, working in collaboration with Associate Professor Thumbi Ndung’u,

The impact of the HIV epidemic knows no boundaries and has devastated people throughout the world, affecting every country, race, religion and gender. Currently, although there are antiretroviral drug therapies available to HIV infected individuals, millions of people annually are still being infected and many of the infected individuals in developing countries do not have access to these therapies. Within South Africa alone, the HIV prevalence in adults is estimated to be 17.3% (5.6 million people), with the estimated number of new infections to be 380,000 people, annually.

However, there is a glimmer of hope. Recent results from the RV144 HIV Vaccine Trial, a Phase III Clinical Trial, for the first time showed a moderate efficacy of protection from HIV infection. Interestingly, the major immune response induced by the vaccine were non-neutralizing HIV-specific antibodies. In addition, small studies have correlated the strength of non-neutralizing innate immune effector recruiting antibody (Ab) responses with decreasing viremia observed during the acute stages of HIV infection. However, it still remains unclear how soon post-infection the non neutralizing antibodies develop, how they evolve following infection and the exact mechanism(s) by which they inhibit the virus.

During my visit to HPP, I had the privilege of helping to transfer three different research technologies aimed at quantifying the innate immune effector functions of HIV-specific antibodies to staff and students within HPP. This knowledge transfer now allows the HPP laboratory at the University of KwaZulu-Natal to be able to expand their capacity to conduct HIV antibody research, and explore the role of innate immune recruiting Abs in the control of HIV infection.

In addition, HPP has access to samples of unique HIV cohorts, including acutely infected subjects, and a cohort of over 450 untreated chronically infected individuals. During my visit, we were able to begin to characterize the innate immune effector functions of subjects within the above mentioned cohorts. From this research we have already been able to identify certain innate immune recruiting antibody markers that are associated with reduced HIV virus replication. This research now opens many new avenues to explore in the understanding of innate immune recruiting antibodies in the control of HIV infection and may help us to identify new antibody mechanisms to induce within future HIV vaccines.