A research team from The University of Western Australia's School of Paediatrics and Child Health (SPACH) has won a slice of a $1 million grant from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation to fund an international study which could lead to earlier and more effective treatment of HIV infections in Sub-Saharan Africa.
UWA Winthrop Professor Peter Le Souef, Murdoch University research fellow and senior lecturer Dr Andrew Currie and UWA's Dr Holly Clifford - all attached to SPACH - will receive $200,000 as part of a global collaboration with other research institutions. The teams will work to identify early biomarkers which could predict HIV infection in patients.
Dr Clifford, a research associate at SPACH, said such biomarkers would allow people at risk of HIV infection to be identified and treated much earlier than is currently possible.
"By the time we diagnose it now they're already too far gone," Dr Clifford said. "They already have low T-cell counts and immune damage - they're already very sick.
"We're trying to identify HIV infections at the earliest possible stage. If you can screen people for these biomarkers that we are hoping to identify, you can pick up on people who are likely to have HIV infection before they have been diagnosed. If we can catch people in that early acute phase of their infection, maybe they can have earlier, preventive treatment and respond better."
The three-year project will be led by Professor Denise Naniche from the Barcelona Center for International Health Research and will include teams from the Manhica Health Center in Mozambique, the University of Duisberg Essen, Germany, and the IrsiCaixa - The Institute for AIDS Research - in Spain.
Adults from Mozambique's Manhica region - where community HIV prevalence was estimated two years ago at 40% - will be tested when they present to hospital with a fever. They will then be followed for a year to see if they develop the HIV infection. For those that do later develop the infection, the researchers will have early information to help search for biomarkers. Those that don't go on to develop HIV will become the control group. Comparisons will also be made with groups of chronically infected and late-stage HIV-infected patients.
The UWA team's role is to look for gene expression markers in the acute infection stage. Other teams will focus on the immune response and HIV antibody work.
HIV/AIDS is one of the priority areas of focus for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation's Global Health Program.
The program focuses on health problems that have a major impact in developing countries but get little attention and funding.
Grants from the foundation are highly sought after and involve a long application process.
"It's quite an honour to get such a big grant," Dr Clifford said. "I think there were fifty applications and it got whittled down to about six. Only half of them, including ours, got funded.
"With this funding we can learn more about the crucial early stages of HIV infection - hopefully our research may one day lead to a much better outcome for HIV patients."
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation was founded by Microsoft software company Chairman Bill Gates and his wife Melinda, and includes US business magnate Warren Buffett.
Winthrop Professor Peter LeSouëf (School of Paediatrics and Child Health) (+61 8) 9340 8173
Research Assistant Holly Clifford (School of Paediatrics and Child Health) (+61 8) 9489 7787
Michael Sinclair-Jones (UWA Public Affairs) (+61 8) 6488 3229 / (+61 4) 00 700 783