Research Profile – Protection against HIV

Photo: Dr. Rupert Kaul

Understanding mucosal protection against HIV: delineating interactions between the immune system, microbiome and mucus

Most new HIV infections are acquired through sex, but sexual HIV transmission is surprisingly inefficient. This has affected the development of an effective HIV vaccine in several important ways. First, the rarity of transmission makes it very difficult to study genital immune events that result in transmission, which would inform vaccine development. Second, researchers have developed artificial models of HIV transmission due to the inefficiency of natural transmission. These ‘mucosal gaps’ have served as a significant obstacle to the development of an effective HIV vaccine.

Research has demonstrated that unique aspects of the human genital tract serve as critical determinants of HIV transmission risk: especially important are the normal genital bacteria that we all carry (the microbiome), and aspects of each person’s genital immunology. This research team brings together scientists with a background in the mucosal immunology of HIV, HIV vaccine experts, basic immunologists, clinical trials experts from longstanding Toronto-Africa collaborations, microbial ecologists and community-based researchers in order to explore very novel aspects of HIV susceptibility in participant cohorts from Toronto, Kenya and Uganda as well as in laboratory-based vaccine models.

The teams will apply their expertise in mucosal immunology, the human microbiome and HIV vaccine development within unique participant cohorts and very well-characterized and validated lab models in order to improve understanding of HIV transmission during sex.

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