Finding a Cure for HIV with Big Data

Finding a cure for HIV has been a top priority since the virus was first identified.

An HIV diagnosis is life altering; although there are treatments available, once you have it, you have it for life. With around 37.7 million  individuals living with HIV world-wide, research for a cure is highly active within the scientific community — but as of yet, the ultimate goal remains elusive.

On the cutting edge of this research is Zabrina Brumme, a Faculty of Health Sciences professor at Simon Fraser University and the laboratory director of the BC Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS. Her lab is collaborating with experts nationally and internationally to advance HIV cure research into the big data age.

A major challenge facing medical researchers is that people living with HIV have distinct copies of the virus genome, many which cannot be eradicated with everyday treatments. To solve this problem, researchers are moving beyond traditional approaches and scaling up to make use of contemporary scientific methods — in particular, big data.

Brumme’s lab is studying genetic diversity of HIV through potentially transformative analytical approaches. People who live with HIV have many distinct copies of the virus imbedded in their genetic material, which persist in the body despite treatment. Brumme’s team is developing computational methods that will identify these different versions of HIV copies in a person’s body in order to eradicate the virus. 

Brumme and her team are partially supported by the Next Big Question Fund on behalf of Simon Fraser University’s Big Data Hub. The Next Big Question Fund encourages data-driven research that has the potential to transform the big data field and have real-world impact. 

“The Next Big Question Fund was instrumental in enabling my team to generate … information that is essential to our pursuit of an HIV cure,” says Brumme. 

Support from the Next Big Question Fund enabled Brumme and her team to generate data that was leveraged to secure funding of over $3.8 million CAD from the Canadian Institutes of Health Research and the National Institutes of Health. Their methodological framework was published in the prestigious scientific journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Science, and gained media attention from CTV and the Globe and Mail.

Living with HIV poses many health, social and economic obstacles that can affect both the individual and their community. Although HIV is a manageable disease in Canada and other wealthy countries, the stigma associated with it persists. Brumme’s work is important not only because it is advancing HIV research towards the ultimate goal of finding a cure; but also, because it is creating the conditions to reduce the stigma and giving people who are affected by HIV a better quality of life.