In the push for a cure for HIV, the Government of Canada has announced $8.76 million in funding to Université de Montréal and Institut de recherches cliniques de Montréal (IRCM) Professor Éric A. Cohen, who will lead an unrivaled group of Canadian investigators and international collaborators with a strong track record of interactive research. This team includes a balance of youth and experience and distinct but complementary background of expertise. They are called the CanCURE team for a good reason. A further $2 million is being awarded to Université de Montréal and CHU Sainte-Justine Professor Hugo Soudeyns, who is looking specifically at mother-to-child transmission of HIV. At Université de Montréal-affiliated IRCM today, Canada's Minister of Health, the honourable Rona Ambrose, announced the funding, which is to be provided by the Canadian Institutes of Health Research (CIHR) the Canadian Foundation for AIDS Research (CANFAR) and the International AIDS Society (IAS).
CanCURE is more formally known as the Canadian HIV Cure Enterprise. “The Mission of the CanCURE Program is to develop a sterilizing and/or functional HIV Cure,” explained Prof. Cohen. “We are going to focus an international research effort on characterizing the mechanisms of HIV latency and persistence despite antiretroviral therapy, on developing ways of testing possible cures, and on generating innovative therapeutic approaches that can be tested in human clinical trials.” Latency is the ability of a virus to lie dormant.
Two central hypotheses will guide the CanCURE team's research. “Our first hypothesis is that HIV persistence during antiretroviral therapy is due largely to complex interactions between HIV and tissue-based CD4+ T cells and myeloid cells and that critical virus-host interactions could be specifically targeted for intervention to deplete viral reservoirs. Our second hypothesis is that enhancing pre-existing HIV-specific immunity is required to reduce and eliminate the HIV reservoir,” Prof. Cohen said. CD4+ T-cells are a type of white blood cell that play a key role in our immune system – when they are depleted, for example due to untreated HIV, we become susceptible to infections we would otherwise be able to fight. Myeloid cells are found in our bone marrow, in the blood and in various tissues, including the brain, where HIV can hide.
Addressing this “HIV reservoir” is a key component of the research project led by Prof. Hugo Soudeyns, whose team is based at CHU Sainte-Justine. “The objective of our proposal is to examine whether the amount of HIV that remains hidden in the patient despite effective treatment is lower in HIV-infected children who are treated early on with antiretroviral therapy as compared to children in whom treatment is introduced at a later age. We will also do blood tests to measure signs of inflammation and to assess how children who start treatment earlier as compared to later respond to HIV infection in general,” Prof. Soudeyns explained. “Results from these studies will help us determine if early intensive treatment with antiretroviral medications is capable of reducing the amount of HIV hidden in the body or, in some cases, leads to a cure from HIV infection in children who contract HIV by mother-to-child transmission.”
Both Prof. Cohen and Prof. Soudeyns are proudly affiliated with the Department of Microbiology, Infectiology & Immunology, Faculty of Medicine at Université de Montréal. For the university's rector, Dr. Guy Breton, these innovative research projects bring hope. “We are progressively discovering patients who have not only survived HIV/AIDS, but seem to be cured. This is the result of many years of breakthrough research, competition, and collegiality. It is also the result of considerable investment in research by government, foundations and universities,” he said. “The investments that the Government of Canada has announced today are bringing us closer to the goal, and there's every reason to believe that the total cure for HIV/AIDS may be discovered here, by Canadian researchers. Université de Montréal is very proud that its affiliated institutes, the Institut de recherche cliniques de Montréal and the CHU Sainte-Justine Mother-and-Child Hospital, have attracted the support of funding partners for the implementation of these two important research projects.”