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Zabrina Brumme

Back-to-basics research moves HIV vaccine forward

September 17, 2008

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By Helena Bryan

When Zabrina Brumme says her post-doctoral research at Boston’s Harvard Medical School goes "back-to-basics," don’t start thinking Petri dishes and test tubes from Science 101, nor that it’s a step backwards.

On the contrary, her research on HIV‘s sly "escape" from the immune system combines the intricacies of molecular biology, epidemiology and bioinformatics. It also represents a major step toward the ultimate destination of the HIV research community—an HIV vaccine.

"One of the major challenges to vaccine design is the virus’s extreme mutational capacity," says Brumme, who joins the Faculty of Health Sciences in 2009 as assistant professor. "If we can achieve a deeper understanding of what types of immune responses are most effective against HIV, how HIV mutates to "escape" these responses and how immune escape influences the clinical course of HIV, this is a step forward for HIV vaccine research."

Collaborating with scientists from the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS, where she worked as an undergraduate as well as a graduate student; researchers at Harvard Medical School where she’s doing her post-doc; as well as computational biologists at Microsoft Research, Brumme used a supercomputer and an algorithm to identify specific viral mutations allowing HIV to hide from the body’s defences.

The results provide what researchers are calling a "cheat sheet" of moves the virus can make. This cheat sheet will give scientists an advantage in their quest to create a vaccine against HIV because it allows them to know which regions of the virus will trigger the immune system and how the virus will mutate to evade this response. "This is important," Brumme explains, "because vaccines succeed only when they stimulate an effective immune response."

While she believes a vaccine is a long way off yet—especially in light of disappointing results from a major trial last fall—she is optimistic that research like hers on virus evolution is a necessary beginning step.

She’s looking forward to continuing her research in Blusson Hall’s brand new labs. And who knows? At just 30 years old, she might see such research lead to a successful HIV vaccine in her lifetime.
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