Dr. Zabrina Brumme

Finding predictability in the unpredictable

Assistant Professor at Simon Fraser University and CIHR New Investigator Award winner

“I have a respect for it in a way...though perhaps ‘respect’ isn’t quite the right word,” explains Dr. Zabrina Brumme, an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Health Sciences at Simon Fraser University. “It’s an amazingly adaptable organism, for not even really being an organism at all.” Dr. Brumme is referring to the HIV-1 virus. It is this capacity for change and adaptability that lies at the heart of her research.

The HIV virus is particularly adept at mutating as it reproduces, changing its appearance and avoiding immune detection, a phenomenon called ‘immune’ or ‘mutational’ escape. Not only does this occur within an individual, but strains of HIV vary across populations and even through time. When it comes to vaccine development, HIV is a moving target.

But the virus can only mutate so much; it must retain critical regions of its genes that allow it to survive, function and reproduce in the human body. With support of the CIHR New Investigator Award and a brand new Level 3 lab at Simon Fraser, Dr. Brumme is working to determine these critical gene regions by replicating HIV in vitro. “One of the strategies for HIV vaccine design is to specifically target genetic regions of the virus where mutational escape is very difficult,” explains Dr. Brumme. “We want to know what these critical parts of the virus are. What is HIV’s Achilles heel?” Knowing the critical genes in the HIV-1 virus lets vaccine developers know which genes to aim for.

Another branch of Dr. Brumme’s research looks at how the HIV virus differs over time in a population. With the immune system putting particular pressures on the virus to adapt, will the HIV virus gradually get more adept at immune evasion?  Using early samples from HIV cases in North America from the late 1970’s and early 1980s, Dr. Brumme is looking at how the HIV virus’ genes have changed over the course of the epidemic.  From early results, it appears the virus circulating in modern times differs slightly from the virus circulating in the 1970s in North America, suggesting that  HIV is adapting towards better human immune system evasion as the epidemic continues. She emphasizes, though, that these differences are slight, and therefore unlikely to have major negative implications for HIV vaccine efficacy.

Dr. Brumme is driven by a love of science and an appreciation for the simple yet remarkably adept HIV virus. She is grateful to her mentors who put her on a research career path: “They knew better than I did regarding my potential as a researcher. They said ‘We think you have what it takes and we encourage you to go further’. Now that I’m on the other side of the desk, I appreciate the importance of mentors.”  As an assistant professor, Dr. Brumme is giving back by hosting students in her lab from elementary school up to Post Doctorates and training future researches.

“In addition to my mentors, CIHR’s support throughout my career has been absolutely essential to my progress so far,” explains Dr. Brumme. “CIHR supported me through my doctoral and post doctoral work and in my current research through operating grants and a New Investigator Award.”

Dr. Brumme sees a bright future for Canadian research “There isn’t going to be one individual, or institute, or even one country that will be able to claim success for an HIV vaccine. But Canada is well positioned and will play an important role in vaccine development which will really promote the profile of Canadian researchers internationally. It’s a great time to be in HIV research.” 

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