"It was truly a unique experience to conduct research in an HIV-prevalent country like South Africa."

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Travel Report: Xiao Mei Kuang

Xiao Mei Kuang, a PhD candidate in Molecular Biology and Chemistry, received a Graduate International Research Travel Award (GIRTA) to further her research in Durban, South Africa.

September 22, 2017

Combination antiretroviral therapy (cART) can efficiently control HIV replication and reduce AIDS-related morbidity and mortality in most infected individuals. However, it is important to recognize that HIV infection is life-long, even in the presence of cART.

There is no cure for HIV and it remains a global concern. A major obstacle to eliminating HIV from infected individuals is the presence of rare reservoirs of latent virus-infected cell that are unaffected by cART. My PhD project aims to investigate viral mechanisms that contribute to HIV persistence, including the ability of the viral Nef protein to evade host immunity by reducing the presentation of viral epitopes (small protein fragments) on cells.

Thanks to the Graduate International Research Travel Award (GIRTA), I had a unique opportunity to conduct research at the KwaZulu-Natal Research Institute for TB and HIV (K-RITH), located in Durban, South Africa. This experience was particularly interesting because South Africa has one of the largest HIV epidemics in the world (~6 million HIV+ individuals, from a total population of 56 million).

Like most of southern Africa, HIV in South Africa is typically caused by Subtype C strains, which are genetically distinct compared to Subtype B isolates found in North America. Hence, K-RITH granted me access to large repositories of unique patient samples that are not readily available in Vancouver. Durban is an epicenter of South Africa’s HIV and TB co-epidemics, so I was also able to interact with trainees and investigators with diverse research expertise and interests. Finally, while I was in Durban, the city hosted the 21st International AIDS Conference (AIDS 2016), a biennial meeting that included ~20,000 scientists, policymakers, world leaders, and people living with HIV. I participated in this conference and presented my research.

My trip to Durban was very productive. I spent the majority of my time working in the lab trying to learn and establish protocols that will be very beneficial for my research. In particular, I learned single HIV genome amplification methods that are extremely useful to characterize latent HIV-infected cells from patients. This technique is now being used in our lab at SFU. I also learned to perform cytotoxic T-lymphocyte killing assays to test the ability of blood cells to detect HIV epitope presentation, which I plan to set up at SFU. In addition to acquiring the skills described above, I shared several protocols developed by the Brockman lab with our collaborators in Durban.

The first method was a T-cell receptor (TCR)-based reporter cell assay that can be used to measure HIV immune evasion activity. The second method was single-cell TCR amplification, a technique used to isolate these highly diverse immune receptors from individual T cells to allow further molecular characterization. Indeed, our collaborating labs are now using these methods to identify unique TCRs from HIV subtype C-infected individuals who have better disease outcome.

To summarize the outcomes of my award, it was truly a unique experience to conduct research in an HIV-prevalent country like South Africa. My time in the lab was productive, and also highly rewarding. I learned new techniques that will be applied to my thesis projects; and the exchange of research protocols have helped to continue and strengthen collaborative efforts between faculty at SFU and those at K-RITH. Aside from basic science research, it was also amazing to interact with local students and to learn more about the culture and life-style of southern Africa.