By Chantall Van Raay
Charu Kaushic, an associate professor in Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine, has been awarded an Applied HIV Research Chair from the Ontario HIV Treatment Network (OHTN), to study heterosexual transmission of HIV in women and the impact of hormonal contraceptives use on HIV susceptibility.
Kaushic is one of two scientists in Ontario to receive the five-year chair, valued at $750,000. Her work will target prevention strategies in women, based on evidence of biological susceptibility. She will conduct the program in partnership with Women’s Health in Women’s Hands (WHIWH) – a community health centre that provides primary healthcare to African Caribbean women in Toronto and its surrounding municipalities. Using a cohort of women on hormonal contraceptives, Kaushic will examine underlying causes of their increased susceptibility to contracting HIV. One of the key components of the award is ongoing consultation with provincial community-based organizations that are involved in providing care to women who have or are at risk for HIV infection.
“According to UNAIDS, of the 34 million people infected with HIV globally, half are women infected primarily by unprotected heterosexual contact,” says Kaushic, who is also a member of the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research and McMaster Immunology Research Center. “Because of this incredible opportunity provided by the Ontario HIV Treatment Network, we will be able to make significant contributions to knowledge and prevention strategies that decrease women’s susceptibility to HIV.”
Using the grant, Kaushic’s team will examine reproductive biology, immunology and host viral interactions with a goal to develop prevention strategies that are applied in clinical practice and used to enhance women’s knowledge of risk factors.
“One thing we know is African-Caribbean women are at an increased risk for HIV-1 infection,” says Kaushic. “There are a number of studies that suggest that hormonal contraceptives may contribute to increased risk of sexually transmitted diseases. In recent months UNAIDS has emphasized the need for more research in this area. We think this may be through suppression of innate immune factors.”
By examining whether hormonal contraceptives decrease innate anti-viral immune responses to HIV in a cohort of African-Caribbean women, Kaushic’s team hopes to generate information that can be used for recommendations of safe hormonal contraceptive choices. They will also examine if curcumin, a natural anti-inflammatory compound, can be used as a prophylactic topical anti-inflammatory agent to prevent HIV infection in women. A third project will determine if strengthening the genital mucosal barrier by enhancing innate immune factors will increase the resistance of female genital tract to HIV.
“My hope is that in two years we will have generated enough data that we can conduct clinical trials on testing which forms of hormonal contraceptives are safe for use in women at increased risk. Our second goal over the next five years is to conduct research that will lead to development of effective therapies to prevent HIV transmission in women,” Kaushic says.
The award will also include a trainee exchange program between Kaushic’s lab and WHIWH, to build the research capacity that enhances further collaborations between basic science labs and community-based research organizations. Jessica Kafka, a fourth-year graduate student in Kaushic’s lab will conduct basic science at McMaster, and will participate in research efforts at the WHIWH site while Jamie Thomas-Pavanel, a community based researcher at the WHIWH site, will be mentored in Kaushic’s lab.
OHTN’s new Impact-Focused Research Program was established last fall as a way to fund research that will quickly address issues highly relevant to those most affected by HIV in Ontario, says Sean Rourke, its scientific and executive director. He adds that Kaushic was one of three awardees out of 21 applicants who met the demanding criteria of the award.
“Dr. Kaushic’s research is both timely and relevant,” he says, “and will help the field understand the underlying basis for increased biological susceptibility to HIV in African, Caribbean and Black women and develop strategies to reduce that risk. Her proposal was scientifically rigorous and promises to have an impact within a two- to five-year time frame, including close collaboration with organizations like Women’s Health in Women’s Hands, which works directly with African, Caribbean and Black women. These relationships will ensure that what Dr. Kaushic learns will be integrated into programs and services.”
For more information about the award and other winners visit http://www.ohtn.on.ca/Pages/Funding/Results-Current.aspx