Otago University link to solving HIV puzzle

Prof Carole McArthur
Prof Carole McArthur
Researchers, including a former Dunedin scientist, have made a discovery which raises hopes of finding an eventual cure for HIV.

Prof Carole McArthur, who is a University of Otago graduate, is among the authors of a newly-published study on the discovery of a large group of people whose bodies naturally control HIV without taking medication.

She is professor of oral and craniofacial sciences at the University of Missouri — Kansas City, and set up research and treatment clinics in the 1990s in Cameroon.

She also undertook research in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC), recent findings being drawn from her Missouri University HIV programme in Kinshasa, DRC.

The study estimated as many as 2.7%-4.3% of HIV carriers in the DRC could suppress the virus.

Identifying this group of "elite controllers" of HIV infection raised hopes of an eventual cure, by providing new pathways for further research into vaccines and treatments for HIV.

This was an "exciting finding" because such patients were rare and "we appeared to have a large cohort of them to study," she said in an interview.

Every new HIV discovery was “another piece in the evolutionary jigsaw puzzle".

This discovery "throws light on the potential mechanism of HIV control, that could impact drug development."

The new research could help deal with "the last great hurdle in the HIV pandemic".

There have been three major challenges, the first, more than 30 years ago, being to develop effective diagnostic tools.

Superb diagnostic tools had since been developed.

The second challenge, of keeping people alive, when faced with a lethal disease, had been met and HIV was now managed as a chronic disease.

The third challenge, still unmet, was "HIV persistence".

Although the disease could be controlled through various drug combinations, if the drugs were discontinued, the disease re-emerged and the patient succumbed.

Her future studies would be directed at the mechanisms which enabled people to survive without medication.

"Understanding this could lead to strategies leading to a cure," she said.

Otago University was a "superb"place to undertake research and she had been "enormously fortunate" to have received the Otago University grounding in zoology/parasitology/immunology.

She had also benefited earlier in her education from playing co-operative team sports at South Otago High School and from advice from her parents, including when playing hockey, to "pass the ball" to benefit the team.

This had helped her to successfully manage large multi-cultural teams of very different people in Africa to the benefit of all involved.

Prof McArthur still has friends and colleagues at Otago University and usually comes back to Dunedin each year to visit them.

Born in Queenstown, she went to primary school in Lawrence and Kaitangata, later attending South Otago High School, in Balclutha.

Prof McArthur, who is also also director of residency research in pathology at the Truman Medical Centre, in the US, graduated from Otago University with a BSc (Hons) in zoology in 1974, and a PhD in 1977.

john.gibb@odt.co.nz

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