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McMaster Prof Leads International Team in Novel HIV Research

A group of Canadian and international researchers, led by McMaster University’s Dr. Charu Kaushic, was recently awarded a CIHR Team Grant totaling $1.2 million to study the mucosal immune response to HIV.

With support from the Canadian HIV Vaccine Initiative (CHVI), and in partnership with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, Dr. Kaushic and her colleagues propose to further explore whether changes in a woman’s hormones, genital microflora and immune system increase the risk of HIV infection.

According to Dr. Kaushic, a professor in the Department of Pathology and Molecular Medicine and a member of the Michael G. DeGroote Institute for Infectious Disease Research, the study will be carried out using two innovative approaches.

“The first approach will be to conduct a combination of clinical studies and animal experiments to see if progesterone-based hormonal contraceptives lead to a ‘less healthy’ vaginal microflora and more inflammation in the genital tract, which could increase HIV risk,” she explains.

“The second approach will be to directly deliver probiotics or small, and safe, amounts of estrogen in clinical studies and in animal models to determine if this makes the vaginal microflora healthy and decreases local inflammation, thereby decreasing HIV risk.”

Mucosal immunology of the reproductive tract is a critical area of investigation for HIV vaccines, and with this grant, Dr. Kaushic notes, “our team will be able to initiate new clinical and basic science projects to help us understand the important connections between sex hormones, microbiome and immunity – knowledge that will be key in developing strategies to decrease susceptibility to HIV infection in women.”

On July 20, Dr. Kaushic will be speaking at a special satellite session at the International AIDS Society meeting in Vancouver. Sponsored by the Alliance Coordinating Office, this session will highlight the work of Canada’s leading researchers in the area of mucosal immunology.