PhD candidate Aniqa Shahid working in Zabrina Brumme's lab in Blusson Hall.

FHS PhD student successful in CIHR doctoral competition

July 13, 2020

By: Geron Malbas

Aniqa Shahid, a PhD candidate in the Faculty of Health Sciences (FHS), has been successful in the CIHR doctoral research competition, winning the Frederick Banting and Charles Best Canada Graduate Scholarships Doctoral Award. In addition to supporting her current research, this award will help her with future applications for post-doctoral research opportunities, as well as other research grants.

“It is certainly encouraging to be externally recognized for my research work and achievements,” she says. “I feel more determined and confident about my research topic, and this award will allow me to focus wholeheartedly on my research.”

Originally from Pakistan, Shahid attended the University of Karachi, earning a three-year Bachelor's degree, followed by a one-year Master’s degree (non-thesis) in Biotechnology. Upon graduation, she joined the HIV molecular epidemiology research laboratory at the Aga Khan University in Karachi. There, she characterized population-level HIV diversity in samples from Pakistan, Nepal, Kenya, and Afghanistan, helping her better understand the HIV epidemic in those populations. Her work led to four peer-reviewed publications, and inspired her to pursue a career in HIV basic science research.

“At the time, the stigma attached to HIV was so intense that discussing the disease was frowned upon, making it challenging to work in the field,” she explains. “Therefore, I explored training opportunities in HIV biomedical research internationally and decided to pursue graduate studies in Canada in 2012.”

Shahid, who also completed her Master of Science degree with FHS in 2015, is focusing her PhD research on HIV persistence and eradication.  With her PhD project, “Towards an HIV cure for all: increasing female representation in HIV latency research,” she is studying the latent HIV reservoir dynamics and diversity in females. She hopes to help develop a cure for HIV that will be effective and accessible for all.

“While combination antiretroviral therapies (cART) have changed HIV from an inevitably fatal illness to a chronic health condition manageable with one pill per day, cART does not completely eliminate HIV from the body,” she explains. “This is because HIV integrates its genetic material into the genome of the infected human immune cells and can persist in a dormant or ‘latent’ state for many years. These dormant HIV copies are called the ‘latent HIV reservoir’, and they can re-activate due to cART interruption as they persist in the body invisible to the human immune system and to antiretroviral drugs.”

Substantial research efforts have been made to understand HIV in individuals whose infections are controlled with cART, however most research participants have been males. By contrast, females make up approximately 52% of the people living with HIV worldwide, and are significantly underrepresented in HIV latency research, especially in North America.

“Fundamental questions around sex-based differences in the context of latent HIV reservoir remain unanswered,” says Shahid. “Scientific literature suggests that females living with HIV, for example, tend to display elevated immune activation and rapid disease progression compared to males. So, it is plausible that sex-based differences may influence the reservoir size, genetic diversity, composition and/or other characteristics of the latent HIV reservoir.”

Shahid is currently working with FHS professor Zabrina Brumme at the British Columbia Centre for Excellence in HIV/AIDS (BC-CfE) laboratory as a Research Assistant. Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, Shahid has been working in Brumme’s lab in Blusson Hall, providing logistics support in COVID-19 related research activities in FHS. The laboratory in Blusson Hall is uniquely positioned to help in COVID-19 research, as it has an automated nucleic acid extractor that is owned by BC-CfE to process clinical specimens.

“I am trained to ensure the machine is kept maintained to ensure that, once we receive clinical specimens, we are ready to perform nucleic acid extractions and other downstream experimentation,” she explains. “Both FHS and BC-CfE are at the forefront of HIV molecular epidemiology and cure research, and I am excited to be a part of a vibrant research community working to improve the health and well-being of people living with HIV.”