"I was able to forge lasting connections that not only have helped me grow, but will also continue to help our field together move towards its goal of achieving an HIV cure."

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Travel Report: Natalie Kinloch

Natalie Kinloch, a PhD student in the Faculty of Health Sciences, received a Graduate International Research Travel Award (GIRTA) to further her research in New York City.

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August 27, 2019

The major barrier to an HIV cure is the ability of the virus to persist, even after decades of suppressive antiretroviral drug treatment, in a quiescent state within a small pool of immune cells in an infected individual’s body. This long-term viral archive is known as the "latent HIV reservoir" and curing HIV will require its elimination. My PhD research aims to increase our understanding of the genetic characteristics of this latent HIV reservoir towards the goal of informing therapeutic strategies to eradicate it.

After receiving a Graduate International Research Travel Award (GIRTA), I travelled to New York City in January and February 2019 to visit the laboratory of Dr. R. Brad Jones at Weill Cornell Medicine, Cornell University to learn several new laboratory techniques necessary for conducting my PhD research. I have subsequently worked to implement these procedures in our laboratory back at SFU and have already applied many of them to my work.

The two main techniques I learned while visiting Dr. Jones’ lab both allow us to measure the size of the latent reservoir that is hiding dormant in an infected person’s body. The first is called the Quantitative Viral Outgrowth Assay (QVOA). This assay not only allows us to measure the size of the latent reservoir, but to collect viruses that come back alive from it. By collecting and sequencing these re-awakened viruses, we are able to investigate the genetic characteristics that make them unique. We were able to perform this assay on cells from 7 patients in our Vancouver CURE cohort under the guidance of a post-doctoral fellow from Dr. Jones’ lab and then send collected viruses back to SFU to study. Our work studying these viruses and establishing this assay in our lab is on-going.

The second technique I learned while visiting Dr. Jones’ lab was a droplet digital PCR (ddPCR) assay designed to measure the latent HIV reservoir called the Intact Proviral Detection Assay (IPDA). This is a very unique assay that allows us to measure viruses in the latent reservoir that have different genetic traits and gain an understanding of the distribution of these different viruses within the reservoir from a very small starting sample. Very few HIV research groups in the world are able to perform this assay and we are now lucky to be one of them! We have established this technique in our lab and have used it to answer questions for many different research projects so far. We are still actively collaborating with the Jones lab to make improvements to the published version of this assay.

Dr. Jones’ lab is one of the leading HIV Cure research groups in the world and I was so fortunate to have the opportunity to learn from not only Dr. Jones, but also the brilliant team of post-doctoral fellows, students and staff that he supervises. It was invaluable to my research and career development not only to learn new laboratory techniques but also to work in a new environment and actively collaborate with other researchers. I was able to forge lasting connections that not only have helped me grow, but will also continue to help our field together move towards its goal of achieving an HIV cure. I am incredibly grateful to have received GIRTA funding from SFU to support this experience!